It’s a disgrace UK is not doing more to help the women of Ukraine

  • First published in : Visit Website
  • First published on: 11th Mar 2022

On Tuesday the atmosphere was electric when President Zelensky of Ukraine made his historic address to the House of Commons. The one-time comic actor who has in the past been mocked as a political novice showed yet again his gravitas, statesman like qualities, and his grit and determination on behalf of his people. Echoing Winston Churchill he said 'We will fight them in the sea, air, forests, fields and streets... we will not surrender'. 

Sadly, the UK Prime Minister has always been more of a joke than a comedian and he’s certainly never been a statesman. Johnson is more Jim Hacker in Yes Prime Minister than Winston Churchill. This week brought one of Jim’s best quotes to mind –  PM Hacker says “it doesn’t look good for the government to look heartless and feeble at the same time” to wit the official replies, “perhaps we could arrange it so we look feeble and heartless on different days”. Well, when it comes to the Ukraine refugee crisis, the UK Government is looking both heartless and feeble.

At Prime Minister’s questions Boris Johnson told lie after lie as he was repeated pressed on the UK’s woeful response. The performance of Priti Patel fangirling Zelensky in the House of Commons chamber while doing so little to help the people of Ukraine was nauseating, especially in the week she has been caught out lying to the House of Commons. On Monday, in an answer to Sir Roger Gale MP, she said that a visa application centre had been set up en route to Calais and that the Home Office had staff in Calais.  We were later told that a visa centre would be set-up away from the port to avoid creating a choke point. Then it emerged that ‘en route’ meant in Lille, 70 miles away. Not only was it not true that there were UK visa processing staff at Calais, the promised visa centre in Lille was not going to accept walk-ins or appointments and its address would not be made public. The so called ‘pop-up’ centre would only be for people arriving at Calais and deemed highly vulnerable. Roger Gale wasn’t the only back bench Conservative angry with their own government with a number of heavy-weight Tories furious with the disaster at the Home Office. Meantime Patel has been busy complaining to the Irish Government that their open welcome to Ukraine refugees would allow them to reach the UK through the back door. 

Yesterday morning I joined a cross party group of female MPs to have coffee with the Ukrainian Ambassdor’s wife. The poor woman was brave but distraught.  Speaking with her impressed upon me the terrible burden Ukrainian women face as they flee their country with their children leaving their male relatives behind to fight, and uncertain of their destination. The majority of the now millions of refugees fleeing the country are women and children.  What these women need is visa free access to the UK with their children. We must match the EU on this - no ifs and no buts.  So let’s get on with it.  It’s a disgrace that as the Commons marked International Women’s Day, the UK Government is not doing more for these women. 

Our European allies can afford visa free refuge safely and securely, so why can’t the Home Secretary? On TV we have seen queues of upset and exhausted refugees waiting in freezing conditions in Poland. I’ve heard from Scots assisting people that desperate families were thrown out of visa centres so staff could close for lunch after waiting for three hours. 

Yesterday the Home Secretary was dragged to the chamber to announce that Ukrainians who have their passports can apply online, as we have all been calling for, and no longer need to get to a visa centre in a 3rd country to have their photograph taken for facial recognition and fingerprints digitally recorded. But there are other ways to address our security concerns after the arrival of refugees, as we do with non-visa nationals and what we did with evacuated Afghans. Not long after she made her statement we heard that the message had not got through to the hapless officials on the ground actually administering the system… 

Government lies and obfuscation don’t stop at the Home Office. On Tuesday I asked the Foreign Secretary what she was going to do about the humanitarian aid which is getting stuck at Dover for days or impounded in France as a result of post-Brexit customs rules and volunteers not having the correct paperwork. Her response was to rudely deny that any problems caused by Brexit existed. She didn’t remotely engage with the question and instead rather tersely reminded us that the public are encouraged to donate money to organisations like the Disasters Emergency Committee rather than collect items like blankets, medical supplies and other practical items. But charities and volunteer groups in Scotland are already working in partnership with organisations in Poland, Romania and elsewhere to identify what is needed and try and get it to those in need. 

I have tabled a series of questions to the Department for International Trade and HMRC to put pressure on UK Government to work with their EU counterparts to open up routes for humanitarian aid. I have also written, along with my constituent Oleg Demitriv, to the Scottish Government to see what help and support we can give. Oleg is part of a grass roots volunteer group in Edinburgh organised by people with family in Ukraine. Thankfully, due to Oleg’s business experience of imports and exports  their lorries of aid have already reached Ukraine with more on the way. Also, in my constituency, Refugee Action Scotland have been working with expert couriers to get aid to Romania for Ukrainian refugees crossing the border. They are now seeking larger temporary storage facilities with space to accommodate a large transporter – look them up if you can help.

People in Scotland wanting to offer a room to refugees can register with Positive Action in Housing.

On International Women’s Day I raised with Kevin Forster, the Immigration Minister, the case of Oleg’s nieces stuck in Ukraine, noting the vulnerability of women in warzones. They were reluctant to flee because what they were hearing on the news made them think it would be very difficult for them to join their uncle in Scotland. They asked him why they should risk their lives to get to a third country when the likelihood of their getting a visa to join him seemed vanishingly small. Foster glibly told me there was a “good chance” they would be accepted. Hopefully after yesterday’s climb down and now they no longer need to get to a UK Visa Centre first there is greater hope that they can come here. 

It’s worth remembering that, at present, in order to get a visa, Ukrainians need to have family in the UK who are either UK citizens or permanent residents. A Ukrainian student or someone on a work visa couldn’t bring their parents or siblings to safety. Unlike the Syrian or Afghan resettlement schemes which were funded by Government, at some point there is to be a community sponsor scheme where community groups can come together to welcome and fund the resettlement of a refugee family. This already happens on a small scale in Scotland. But Oleg tells me, “I can go to Edinburgh Zoo and sponsor a penguin, what is this a pet refugee for community groups? It’s ridiculous!”  His words are harsh but understandable, and, with all due respect to the good people who want to sponsor refugees, this is not a solution to the immediate and large scale problem. It may be many months before anyone is able to use this route when the crisis is now and growing by the day.  

This UK Government is heartless and feeble and Ministers routinely mislead parliament. It’s a mark of the weakness of Westminster’s so called “sovereign” parliament that we cannot stop it. The refugee support from the UK is in sharp contrast to the EU’s generous offer of visa-free refuge. For now, though, Scots must do what we can at a volunteer level to help. SNP MPs at Westminster will keep on pushing the UK Government and calling out their failure.  

Joanna Cherry QC MP

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