The British people want Ukraine’s refugees treated fairly, not cruelly repelled

Show caption ‘The UN says that five million Ukrainians could flee their country.’ Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion arrive in Hungary on Sunday. Photograph: Janos Kummer/Getty Images Opinion The British people want Ukraine’s refugees treated fairly, not cruelly repelled Enver Solomon The prime minster promised a response to match this terrible crisis. So far his words have rung hollow Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council Mon 28 Feb 2022 07.00 GMT Share on Facebook

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It is difficult to forget the images of people desperately clinging on to the wings of military aircraft as they set off from the besieged Kabul airport last August.

The UK government quickly responded with “operation warm welcome”, in which 15,000 people were flown to the UK with the commitment that 20,000 more would be given sanctuary in the coming years.

Now, much closer to home, around 1,500 miles away in Ukraine, another human tragedy is unfolding. This time there aren’t any planes that can evacuate desperate men, women and children because Russian military aircraft control the skies. Instead, the images we see are of trains crammed full of scared, anxious and bewildered families trying to get to safety with the Ukrainian army forced to fire into the air above the heads of its own people to try to create some kind of order.

The UN says that up to four million people could flee their country. It would be the largest refugee crisis Europe has witnessed for decades. When the Labour MP Nadia Whittome asked the prime minister last week if his government would commit to accepting all Ukrainian refugees who wished to come to the UK, Boris Johnson didn’t duck the question. He told the Commons, “This country will continue to do what it has always done and receive those who are fleeing in fear of persecution. That is what we will do.”

But his words appear to ring hollow: there has yet to be any announcement of an equivalent “operation warm welcome” for Ukrainians. All the government has done so far is allow Ukrainians in the UK to bring over immediate family members. And this doesn’t even allow for extended family members to be reunited. In comparison to the EU’s decision announced on Sunday evening to take in refugees for up to 3 years without having to apply for asylum, it is mean spirited and sends a message to desperate Ukrainians that unless they have an immediate family member in the UK they are not welcome. And worse still, consider the Home Office minister Kevin Foster, having to delete a tweet saying that Ukrainians seeking to flee the ongoing conflict should apply for the seasonal worker visa.

The situation facing innocent Ukrainians uprooted from their homes requires a far more urgent and compassionate response from the prime minister. We should be playing a leading role by strengthening safe routes, to help those escaping the bloodshed who want to come to the UK to do so.

There are already hundreds of thousands heading across Ukraine’s borders with Hungary, Poland and Romania. Reception centres are being set up in collaboration with the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) for the mainly women and children who have fled, having left boyfriends, husbands and fathers to take up arms to defend themselves. Most will want to stay in the hope of returning to their homes and communities as soon as possible. It’s important to remember that the reality for refugees is that around eight out of 10 remain in neighbouring countries. For example, around 1.5 million who have fled the brutal war in Syria remain in Lebanon, hoping to return to their homeland one day.

There will, however, be some that do want to get to safety elsewhere in Europe. The government must establish a safe route to ensure people fleeing the bloodshed and atrocities can apply for a visa on humanitarian grounds to enable them to travel to the UK safely to able to be granted permission to stay in our country.

The government must also work with the UNHCR to ensure a longer term resettlement scheme is in place. The UK Resettlement Scheme (UKRS), which is separate to the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), is already operational, currently receiving refugees from the Middle East, mainly displaced by the Syrian conflict. This could be expanded so that Ukrainians have a longer term resettlement scheme they can access. A long-term safe route will be critical in the months and years ahead if this becomes a drawn-out conflict. And there is strong public backing – more than six out of 10, according to the latest YouGov poll, would support safe routes to resettle Ukrainians, including a majority of both Conservative and Labour voters.

It’s critical that cross-government planning and strong collaboration with councils and public health services gets under way immediately, so they are adequately resourced to meet the need. Partnership working with local authorities, together with sufficient additional funding, are the key elements that the government has struggled to get right for the Afghan programme.

The tragedy in Ukraine also highlights the crucial flaw with the nationality and borders bill going through parliament this week. The bill destroys the longstanding principle that all who seek asylum get a fair hearing – and instead proposes treating those who have to take dangerous journeys overland as criminals. These controversial proposals have been condemned by the former prime minister John Major.

The bill is cruel and discriminatory. We should be proudly demonstrating that refugee protection is a great British value, rather than creating a two-tier system whereby some refugees are unfairly punished for the way they get to the UK.

From the horrors of the second world war to the atrocities in the Balkans, and more recently the innocent families forced out of Syria and those fleeing the persecution of the Taliban, we have welcomed our fellow humans in need of protection. We must do the same for Ukrainians today.

What we certainly must not do is introduce laws that seek to repel and punish people who, through no fault of their own, have lost everything.

Enver Solomon is chief executive of the Refugee Council