‘Shameful’: UK’s response to Ukraine refugee crisis criticised
The ruling Conservative government comes in for criticism for dragging its feet over Europe’s biggest refugee crisis in decades.
During a video address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the House of Commons on Wednesday, British politicians applauded as Zelenskyy, dressed in army khakis, invoked Winston Churchill’s wartime rhetoric and urged the UK to increase its military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine.
While the UK was quick to arm Ukraine, sending thousands of anti-tank missiles as early as January, and to back sweeping economic sanctions on Russia – now even targeting resident oligarch Roman Abramovich – it has not offered Ukrainian refugees the open-armed welcome they have received across the EU.
Instead, displaced Ukrainians have reported endless red tape and delays while applying for visas, sometimes requiring them to wait weeks or travel hundreds of kilometres to centres in Ukraine or neighbouring countries to submit biometric data.
The UK has signalled it will not offer refugee status to Ukrainians, but has promised to speed up family reunification.
UK Home Secretary Priti Patel has announced that, from Tuesday, applicants with Ukrainian passports will be able to apply online rather than in person, but the UK scheme will still be limited to those who already have family in the country they wish to reunite with.
So far, only about 1,000 visas have been granted.
“It’s an emergency situation and EU countries have waived the visa requirements,” Colin Yeo, an immigration and asylum lawyer, told Al Jazeera. “It’s hard to see why the UK thinks it’s special in that respect.”
The UN’s refugee agency says 2.6 million Ukrainians have fled the country since it was invaded by Russia in late February. It estimates that number may reach 4 million if Russia’s military offensive, which has included widespread bombing of civilian areas, continues.
On March 3, the EU unanimously activated its Temporary Protection Directive, which grants Ukranians the right to work, housing and healthcare in EU member states for one to three years.
The UK’s relative lack of urgency in aiding Ukrainians has not gone unnoticed by its European allies, with French President Emmanuel Macron upbraiding the UK after an emergency EU summit on Friday.
“Despite all the grand statements… the British government continued to apply current rules that meant they did not welcome Ukrainian refugees who wanted to reach Britain,” Macron said.
The government’s hardline stance has also angered many domestically, where polls show a large majority of the public is in favour of admitting significant numbers of Ukrainians urgently.
The Financial Times described the UK’s refugee policy as “shameful”, while several refugee charities have slammed the government’s plans as vague and insufficient.
In a session of the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko remarked that while Britons have been able to enter Ukraine without a visa since 2005, the arrangement has never been reciprocal – which has left many Ukrainians bitter.
He said his wife had “bureaucratic hassles” in getting a visa before the war.
“People here within the Ukrainian community, who have family members [in Ukraine] have been doing everything they can to get their family members back here,” Iryna Terlecky, a board member of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, told Al Jazeera.
“Quite a few of them have travelled to Poland to help their family members through the visa application process.”
Terlecky hopes the online applications will alleviate some of the problems but is concerned that the numbers seeking to reach the UK will increase now that Russian bombing raids have reached cities like Dnipro, in central Ukraine, which have previously been comparatively safe.
On Sunday, Russia carried out air raids at a military base near the western city of Lviv, as it expands its military operation.
On Sunday, the government announced a sponsorship scheme called “Homes for Ukraine”, under which the government will pay 350 pounds ($456) per month to individuals or charities to host an uncapped number of Ukrainian nationals for at least six months, aimed at those without existing family ties to the UK.
It remains unclear what legal status people under this scheme will be given, but experts told Al Jazeera that it is unlikely to be full refugee status. Hosts will have to be vetted, creating added layers of bureaucracy, which are likely to hinder the speed at which Ukrainians can be admitted.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has nonetheless claimed that the UK will take in hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians under the family resettlement and sponsorship schemes.
“Those numbers: They seem to be just made up out of thin air,” said Yeo.
The barriers to refugees attempting to enter the UK are nothing new. Under successive Conservative Party governments, the UK has sought to make the country a less appealing destination for those seeking asylum from conflict and persecution.
“[The government] could easily put in a system whereby you waive all visa requirements for Ukrainians – to enable Ukrainians to travel freely to claim asylum, and have their decisions fast-tracked within a matter of days,” said Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council.
“But of course, that runs counter to all of the government [decisions] around refugee and asylum policy over the last five or six years, which has all been about deterring people from trying to come to the UK.”
Home secretary Patel this week defended her ministry’s refusal to waive biometric security requirements, citing intelligence concerns that Russian agents could infiltrate the country disguised as refugees.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin confirmed on Thursday that Patel raised concerns that Ireland, which has admitted approximately 3,000 Ukrainian nationals since the invasion began, could provide a backdoor for them to enter the UK.
The UK’s Conservative majority government is currently seeking to pass the Nationality and Borders Bill through parliament, which has been criticised by human rights groups as a major legal assault on the rights of refugees.
The proposed legislation would criminalise asylum seekers who do not arrive through pre-approved routes, expand the government’s citizenship-stripping powers, and allow for offshore “hubs”, in which asylum applicants to the UK would be held in accommodation centres in another country.
“I think if you talk to anybody who’s had any experience with the UK asylum system, through the Syrian, through the Afghan crises, they would all say the same thing,” said Terlecky.
“Which is [that] a very much better, faster and more compassionate system is needed in the UK.”