On Sunday, it was reported that only 50 refugees from Ukraine had been granted visas to come to the UK. A Guardian report on Monday suggested that it had risen to 300 with about 17700 applications in process so we should expect further visas to be granted, indeed the New York Times reports Priti Patel as suggesting that Britain could take up to 200,000 refugees eventually. It is worth remembering that the UN estimate that over 1 million people have already been displaced by the conflict and this figure is expected to grow.
The Government and Home Office have come under sharp criticism for its response to the refuge crisis which has come across as slow and grudging. Significant pressure has had to be placed on ministers to increase Britain’s offer. Furthermore, there have been concerning stories about how Home Office officials have treated refugees. One report claims that an official was heard to holler at a family of nine:
‘He can get back in his expensive car and clear off and go wherever he wants.’https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10594343/Official-tells-Ukrainian-family-nine-expensive-car-clear-off.html
Whilst the veracity of that particular claim cannot be confirmed, sadly it fits with the experience many asylum seekers report of their interactions with the Home Office through the immigration process. I’ve talked in the past about how our system treats people, arriving here often suffering PTSD from their horrific experience of abuse, as criminals.
Other countries including those closest to the border have waived visa requirements for anyone crossing from Ukraine. The UK has insisted on keeping visas in place arguing that this is necessary for security concerns with the risk of Russian operatives seeking to get into the country pretending to be refugees. Currently only those with family members here can apply, however, there are plans to widen that to allow individuals and community groups to sponsor refugees coming here on a 12 month visa.
In mitigation we might note the following
- We would naturally expect the initial refugee pressure to hit those countries bordering Ukraine first as people are only really able to escape via land borders.
- There are challenges for a country like Great Britain in terms of simply waiving visa requirements because whilst it would be immediately obvious to countries on the border where refugees are coming from, it may not be so obvious here that people are definitely from Ukraine. A visa waiver on Ukrainians may prove to be a waiver for pretty much anyone entering the country. It’s worth remembering that in the past we’ve seen examples of European countries opening the doors initially and then expressing regret later.
However, in response we would also want to argue that
- Whilst the initial pressure is on the border, it is in fact crucial to those border countries and indeed to security for NATO allies that the pressure alleviates. By creating a refugee crisis, Putin manages to find another opportunity to cause problems for those former Soviet countries which border Ukraine and Russia.
- I can’t help thinking that the “security risk” is over stated. It was almost as though the Home Secretary cut and paste the usual excuses in terms of Islamist terror threats. Whilst Russian operatives have struck previously here (notably in Salisbury), I doubt that this is going to be a major challenge or is the priority on their agenda. Indeed, if they want to come here to cause terror, then they will find a way.
But to some extent I think the question of visa waivers is a little bit o a red herring. It’s worth noting that UK opposition parties such as Labour are not calling for visas to be waived. To focus on that is to focus on process instead of outcome and perhaps to miss two crucial points.
- The Visa waiver in the EU is not in fact an emergency response to the current crisis and has bene in place for a few years, in effect giving Ukraine a taste of Schengen arrangements prior to a potential application for membership.
- No country requires visas for asylum seekers because that would interfere with international human rights claims. An asylum seeker should immediately state that they are seeking asylum when they arrive at a safe destination.
There in lies the rub. If Ukrainians were able to get to the UK somehow, if they’d been able to board flights out of their country or if they found ways to stow away, or risked a hazardous channel crossing then, like many others before them the visa question would be irrelevant. They’d arrive at Heathrow or Dover and claim asylum.
So there are three crucial things to remember here. First, that the UK government has been working on an objective to have all asylum claims processed off shore.
Secondly, that some of us have been talking for a while about the overall challenges of the government’s approach to asylum. You see, we have an existing issue with people risking their lives on unsafe crossings via the channel. They can;t use safe routes because if they were to turn up at the ferry or tunnel crossing without a visa or ticket then they would be turned away. If they claimed asylum then it would be argued that they had done so in France, not the UK so they would not be Britain’s responsibility.
Thirdly that you can’t just waive checks and not consider repercussions down the line. A country may not be able to do those checks at the border because of the sheer weight of numbers. However, unless you expect those refugees to either end up in make shift camps to fend for themselves or to pass quickly through your country, then you have to consider what happens next. Refugees will need housing, financial support, healthcare, education etc. So at some point you need to do some registration and you need to check that they have a right not just to be in the country but to seek help and provision along those lines. An asylum system basically enables you to do that after the event with basis support provided immediately.
My personal view is that the Government needs to act urgently before this refugee crisis leads to further suffering for those who have fled the war and indeed suffering for people in other Eastern European countries who are seeking to love and welcome those fleeing. However, not by a gesture such as visa waiving. In fact, we need to be far more proactive.
The obvious solution would be to proactively provide safe routes via train or flights for significant numbers of refugees to come here, agreeing with other European countries how many Britain can take (subject to review). Those coming should be processed as asylum seekers meaning that they would not be delayed whilst immediate visas were processed but would be identified and logged into the system. Oh and I’m 100% up for Oligarch owned property in London to be requisitioned for use as emergency accommodation.
The sponsorship scheme proposed could in fact be a good thing if it enables us not just to receive but to properly welcome and provide for refugees.
What can we as Christians/Churches do? Well first of all, I’d encourage you to be raising the issue as a matter of justice and compassion with the Home Secretary and with your local MP.
Additionally, the Home Office have announced a scheme where individuals and community groups including churches will be able to sponsor Ukrainians without family here to come to the UK on a 12 month visa.
For further information about how you and your church can be involved in welcoming Ukranians have a look at
Sanctuary Foundation | Supporting New Arrivals from Ukraine
No Refugee Alone – Welcome Churches
Update – The Home Office have announced changes enabling online applications rather than refugees with passports having to go to an in person visa centre. This is a major step forward but still seems like a long way from where we need to be.