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Britain Is Turning its Back on Ukrainian Refugees

When Putin invaded Ukraine, Britain's government pledged to do whatever it could to support the victims of war – but its failure to follow Europe in waiving visas for refugees shows that those commitments were little more than words.

People fleeing Ukraine wait at the train station after crossing the border into Hungary at Zahony-Csap on 27 February 2022. (Janos Kummer / Getty Images)

As Russia’s invasion of Ukraine marks its seventh day, the British government has resisted calls to match Europe’s plans to accommodate what may be as many as seven million refugees fleeing the brutality of war.

In response to the conflict, a time described yesterday as ‘defining’ by EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, EU member states have adopted a broad approach. The plan is similar to one used during the Balkan Wars nearly thirty years ago—an ‘open door’ policy which allows Ukrainian refugees the right to move freely, live, and work throughout the EU’s 27 countries for up to three years, with access to benefits, schooling, and healthcare.

Individual countries are also offering internal schemes to help refugees on the move: Poland has a train set up to transport wounded Ukrainians to a long list of hospitals, while Germany and Austria are offering free-of-charge train travel to any onward destination.

According to UN estimates this week, over 600,000 people have so far fled Ukraine. More than half of this number have arrived in Poland, which estimates that around 50,000 refugees are entering the country daily. The rest have fled to either Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia, or Romania, with about 52,000 moving on to other countries in Europe. It’s estimated that at least 160,000 remain displaced internally within Ukraine.

Serious humanitarian concerns have already emerged, including huge queues forming at border controls, with many obliged to find accommodation in makeshift camps, and others facing racism as they try to reach safety. ‘Fortress Europe’ has hardly been known as a moral arbiter on refugee policy in recent years, and those problems are unlikely to simply disappear. Nonetheless, the EU’s provisions for Ukraine’s refugees so far outstrip any lengths to which our own government seems prepared to go.

The UK’s ‘No Hurry’ Response

UK Home Secretary Priti Patel believes Britain is going through its own defining moment, which to her hinges on the passage of the Nationality and Borders Bill, better known as the ‘anti-refugee bill’. To the relief of many, the House of Lords this week inflicted a series of defeats on the government regarding the bill, including voting down the widely-condemned Clause Nine which would have left six million people in Britain at risk of losing their citizenship without notice.

But the Bill itself remains in the works, barely deterred in its principal aim—which is invalidating the legality of most asylum claims in Britain. Off the bat, this gives us a sense of how our government will approach treating those fleeing the present crisis.

Modification to our existing immigration laws have been slow in coming. Twelve-month ‘temporary concessions’ to visa rules for immediate family members were presented at the weekend, but then had to be amended amid flaws highlighted, pressure from activists, and stories circulating of Ukrainians fleeing across Europe only to be denied entry to Britain.

The Ukrainian Family Scheme initially allowed for some family members of those already settled in Britain to come here, but the Home Office failed to make it clear that this provision was limited to partners and dependents. It has subsequently been widened to include parents, grandparents, adult children, and siblings of British nationals and Ukrainians already settled here.

To supplement the scheme, the government has also presented a ‘Humanitarian Sponsorship Pathway’ which would see private organisations sponsoring fleeing Ukrainians. Many have however pointed out that this is likely to be very slow getting off the ground given the sets of tests that have to be met by sponsors—requirements which have proved deterrents to the take-up of similar schemes in the past.

Priti Patel, in her original statement, estimated that the government’s plans would accommodate about 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, but did not clarify how that figure was reached or on what timescale. Then, yesterday, Boris Johnson then suggested that with the widened scheme, the number of Ukrainians offered asylum in Britain would likely be over 200,000. Again, he failed to clarify how that number had been reached—a number which itself seems less impressive in comparison to the fact that Italy alone expects around 800-900,000 Ukrainian refugees.

The Absent Opposition

Acknowledging the voices claiming that these provisions do not go far enough, and calling for an open door policy instead, Priti Patel justified herself on the basis of credulity-defying concerns which seemed to imply that Ukrainian refugees could be Russian terrorists in disguise. ‘Russian troops are seeking to infiltrate and merge with Ukrainian forces. Extremists are on the ground in the region too,’ she said. ‘Given this, and also Putin’s willingness to do violence on British soil… we cannot suspend any security or biometric checks on the people we welcome to the country.’

Undeterred, multiple human rights groups have been urging the British government to take a leadership role and go much further. The Labour Party, however, has reportedly refused to back calls for an open door policy, instead opting for a lukewarm indication that the government scheme should be ‘simplified’. While individual statements show some Labour MPs taking the moral initiative where their leadership has fallen short, the Independent highlighted that the MPs currently lobbying for Britain to adopt an open door policy are in fact 37 Tories.

As we face what is likely to be the biggest conflict in Europe for thirty years, or possibly longer, Britain’s failure to accommodate any and all Ukrainian refugees seeking to come here will represent nothing less than a total abdication of moral responsibility—and Labour’s refusal to push the government toward that position will be a disgrace. We can wait for time to be the judge, but in the meantime, Ukrainians are dying.