Isobel Downie writes about the urgent crisis of Ukrainian Refugees and the UK’s hostile response to immigration.
Since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, the world has been confronted by heart-wrenching images of families separated, refugees fleeing, and children hunkered down in bunkers. War inflicts intense cruelty on the lives of ordinary citizens, transforming and often destroying everything that once was accepted as normal. Whilst we cannot control, nor attempt to understand, the violent mindset of Vladimir Putin, as a country we can do our best to help those fleeing from the utter moral depravity of war. So far, our ‘best’ has been far from enough. Rather than creating a simple, fair, and effective system to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK, the government has chosen to present an opaque and unnecessarily complex asylum process. This pivotal moment in history cries out for leadership and empathy. We can and must do more.
On the 28th of February, the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced in Parliament that Ukrainian refugees can enter the UK if they have relatives who are British nationals. Relatives not falling within the government’s relatively narrow definition of immediate family ‘can apply ordinarily under the points-based immigration system’, a lengthy and complicated process unsuitable for the urgency of wartime immigration. Citing national security reasons, the UK has chosen not to waive visa requirements for refugees fleeing the war. This is in direct contrast to several countries within the EU, including France which have allowed Ukrainians to stay without a visa under the EU’s 90-day rule. Many refugee charities, such as the Refugee Council, have questioned the government’s inflexibility. There are legitimate concerns that the process of applying for a visa is too slow and will prevent many eligible people from coming to the UK.
Furthermore, visas must still be applied for in a British consulate. Due to the conflict, the British consulate in Kyiv has closed, which raises questions about the ease of obtaining a visa for those who have not yet left Ukraine. Although the Home Office has increased capacity in consulates in neighbouring countries, such as Hungary and Poland, it may be difficult for refugees to reach these areas and adds an extra burden to their already arduous journey.
Despite the government’s inflexibility on waiving visas, it has taken important steps elsewhere which should be acknowledged. For example, Ukrainians who are on work, study or visit visas in the UK will have their visas temporarily extended and normal requirements for salary or language tests have been waived. There is also the promise of a sponsored humanitarian visa route that will allow private sponsors (churches and charities etc.) or local authorities to bring people to the UK. This does provide an alternative route for people who do not fit within the definition of immediate family, however, the sponsorship process is often lengthy and steeped in bureaucracy. If it is to be a truly effective system, the government must immediately prioritise and fast track visas for Ukrainians.
The complications arising from this system shed light on the broader structural problems within the UK immigration system. The ‘hostile environment’ policy created by Theresa May in 2012, has led to a deliberately complex immigration policy. There have been limits on immigrants’ access to work, housing, health care, bank accounts, driver’s licences etc., with the aim of creating a system which actively deters migrants from entering the UK. Furthermore, between 2009 and 2016, 2,500-3,500 migrants were in detention at any given time. This ‘hostile environment’ has been exacerbated by the Nationality and Borders Bill (not yet passed) which may allow the government to render people stateless, a factor which has been criticised for breaching the UK’s obligations under the UN Refugee Convention. This exclusionary attitude, combined with the crushing burden of endless bureaucracy, renders the immigration system extremely difficult to navigate. It also makes it difficult for the system to respond quickly to a crisis, such as the war in Ukraine, as there is a lack of simplicity to the process.
We cannot stand by whilst a potential humanitarian disaster unfolds in Ukraine. It is vital that we place pressure on the government to assist those who are fleeing, whilst also providing aid to those who do not have safe routes out of the country. In the long term, the UK must reform and simplify its immigration system, ensuring that it is ready to respond to a crisis that requires rapid action. The Ukrainians, however, cannot afford to wait for this reform; we must be a welcoming and inclusive country that provides a safe haven to those who have experienced a trauma that we can never truly understand.
Organisations placing pressure on the government to reform their immigration policies and/ or raising money for Ukrainian Refugees are: The Refugee Council, The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, The International Committee of the Red Cross, the UN Refugee Agency, RefugEase and the Disasters Emergency Committee. To place direct pressure on the government, people have been encouraged to write to their MP.