Why UK absolutely MUST open doors to more refugees from Ukraine

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 04th Mar 2022

For a brief moment at PMQs this week Boris Johnson told the truth when a Labour MP challenged him on the UK’s inability to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine. While stressing that nobody wants war, Chris Bryant made a fair point by drawing a contrast with the energy and sacrifice expended when Belgium and Poland were similarly invaded in the first half of the 20th century. 

The PM replied that the stark reality is that no country in the west is going to afford the Ukrainians direct military assistance because the consequences of a direct confrontation between western countries and Russia would “not be easy to control”. Everyone in the chamber knew what he meant. Despite the spontaneous outpouring of support for the Ukrainian Ambassador in the gallery above us, people are rightly terrified of an escalated conflict and the threat of nuclear war. Chris Bryant urged swifter and more exacting enforcement of sanctions and he was right to do so. The other thing that the UK must do is much more to help the soon to be millions of people displaced by Russia’s war of aggression. 

Yesterday the UN reported that already one million people have fled Ukraine. This is predicted to increase to 4 million. In the face of those figures what the UK has promised so far is woefully inadequate. And it wasn’t long before Boris was back to telling porkies again when he claimed that the UK had taken more vulnerable people fleeing theatres of conflict since 2015 than any other country in Europe. This is simply not true. Germany took in more in a single year in 2019 (70,000) than the UK did in 6 years from 2015 to 2020 (66,000). So, let’s stop with the lies and the hyperbole about Britain’s proud record. 

The consequences of the conflict in Ukraine could dwarf any refugee crisis Europe has seen since the Second World War. For the UK to play a proper part in tackling it will take a sea change in Tory policies. As the expert immigration lawyer Colin Yeo said earlier this week, UK refugee policy is not just woefully inadequate to the scale of this particular crisis but it is isolationist and cruel. 

That cruelty was exemplified in Junior home office Minister Kevin Foster’s tweet suggesting Ukrainian refugees could come to the Uk if they were prepared to pick fruit. This arrogant fool should have got the sack for his tweet but the truth is he takes his lead from his boss Priti Patel, who was at her snarling worst when the SNP’s refugee and asylum policy expert Stuart McDonald took her inadequate plans apart in the Commons this week. 

What’s really needed is to get rid of Priti and co, tear up what’s gone before and install a pragmatic humanist in the Home office. Maybe David Davis? Unlikely but he was one of a group of senior Tories who wrote to Boris Johnson warning that the policy underlying the anti-refugee Nationality and Borders Bill is dangerous and would see the UK significantly breach key international obligations. The senior Tories were joined by 1000 faith leaders representing the six major faiths across the UK who begged the PM not to close the door on refugees. 

The crisis in Ukraine shows that the UK government must change course and more and more people are realising that. While many including the Scottish Refugee Council graciously welcomed Patel’s relaxation of visa requirements for extended family members of Ukrainians living in the UK and a new sponsorship programme, they are right to say these measures don’t go nearly far enough. As Stuart McDonald argued in the House of Commons this week the UK needs to emulate the EU by waiving visa requirements for Ukrainians. This would do away with the sort of red tape that has seen the parents of one of my constituents, having escaped the fighting, stranded in a third country while their paper visas for the UK sit in Lviv in the visa application centre.

Priti Patel has fallen back on unexplained security concerns to justify taking a different approach to our European neighbours. But, as Stuart also pointed out, when you think of the UK’s open land border with the Republic of Ireland which is taking a far more generous approach, this explanation doesn’t really add up. And, while the humanitarian sponsorship pathway could be a welcome addition, such schemes are notoriously slow. Furthermore, they must not be a way for the UK Government to shuffle its responsibilities off onto cash strapped local authorities and community groups. 

The much maligned House of Lords realises that big changes are needed. In a string of defeats for the UK Government this week their lordships have removed some of the most egregious parts of the Nationality and Borders Bill including the criminalisation of asylum seekers and plans for offshore processing. Peers also voted for amendments laying a path for unaccompanied children in Europe to be reunited with family in the UK when they claim asylum, for an annual refugee resettlement commitment of 10,000 and for a new safe route for people to have their claim for asylum in the UK received and considered overseas when under risk of genocide. And in a huge victory for campaigners from Maryhill Integration. the Lords also voted to lift the ban on asylum seekers working. 

At the very least these changes to the bill must be preserved when it returns to the Commons.  It would be horrifying if in the midst of the current crisis the Commons were to pass legislation that would criminalise Ukrainians who arrive here seeking asylum outside the limited schemes announced by Priti Patel. Tory MPs have a moral responsibility to quell the moral panic about the number of asylum seekers crossing the channel to come to the UK. The evidence heard by the Joint Committee on Human Rights last year was that Greece, Italy, and Spain have all received many more such arrivals in recent years. The UN reports that in 2020, Italy had around 34,000 sea arrivals, Spain 40,000, and Greece 10,000, compared to the UK's 8,500. 

You don’t need a visa to seek asylum and asylum seekers must not be criminalised. But the focus must now be on creating more safe, legal routes so that the UK’s response to this humanitarian disaster goes some way to atone for our inability to stop it from happening.  

Joanna Cherry QC MP

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