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Britain, beating the world at failure

Boris Johnson’s claims of generous support to Ukrainian refugees are easily refuted by the figures: 50 visas granted vs nearly 1 million people taken in by Poland

Prime Minister Boris Johnson reviewed troops during a visit to at RAF Northolt. Photo: Henry Nicholls/PA Wire/PA Images

The superlatives trip off the tongues of Boris Johnson and his ministers with the ease of the proverbial fisherman exaggerating the size of his catch.

“Leading the way”, “world-beating”, “most generous” – the phrases used in the government’s childish, counter-factual boasting are now familiar fare, but never have they grated more than when applied to the pitiful so-called “welcome” for Ukrainian refugees fleeing indiscriminate Russian bombing at home.

At the weekend, the Home Office said that just 50 Ukrainian refugees had been granted entry to the United Kingdom under its extremely limited, family-members-only scheme. Some 5,535 online applications were pending, with 2,368 visa appointments booked to submit paperwork and biometric data before going away again to wait for the result. Around 150 people were reportedly turned away at Calais.

In the port city, instead of the promised “surge” of British officials working all-out to help Ukrainians find a safe haven with relatives in the UK, we have trestle tables, three confused staff and a few KitKats in a bare hall. Refugees are told they can’t get visas here anyway – they must apply in Paris or Brussels, and keep paying the hotel costs while they wait. Britain’s system is not, in any shape or form, “world-beating”.

Many of its politicians are also anything but. The foreign minister, James Cleverly, floundered when questioned about Britain’s paltry efforts, rambling and pushing back during several testy media exchanges. When the BBC’s Nick Robinson said that Ukraine’s neighbour Poland had processed 42,000 in 24 hours, Cleverly protested that it wasn’t fair to make the comparison.

Comparisons might not have been so eagerly made if the Conservatives hadn’t insisted on being “world beating”, but here goes: so far, 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees have had to leave their besieged country. Poland has given refuge to around 800,000 Ukrainian refugees and counting, while Germany – not a border country – has taken tens of thousands. About 1,800 have arrived in Ireland. Poor, tiny Moldova had reached 120,000 a few days ago. The European Union is granting visa-free entry and the right to stay and work for at least three years to an unlimited number of refugees.

Even Conservative MPs are starting to complain, including a group of One Nation Tories led by former deputy prime minister Damian Green – who said last week that the government’s chaotic, paperwork-heavy plan for family visas and a vague sponsorship system just “doesn’t cut it”. North Thanet MP Sir Roger Gale recently tweeted: “Just 50 visas granted to date and families turned back at Calais. A disgrace.”

Stories abound of individuals inexplicably stranded in Calais – such as the London-based Ukrainian nanny returning from a 2,000-mile mercy trip to pick up her eight-year-old daughter from the Polish border. According to the Times, Marianna Pavliuk, who has lived in the UK for six years and is seeking asylum as a victim of trafficking, was denied entry to the country in which she was already living because she didn’t meet Home Secretary Priti Patel’s criteria for Ukrainian refugees. With her daughter – who told Pavliuk after a night sheltering from bombs at her grandmother’s house that “if I never see you again and I die, know I love you very much” – she has been told to go to Paris or Brussels and apply properly.

Scottish journalist Euan MacDonald, who is trying to get to Britain with his Ukrainian family, describes the bureaucracy they are facing as “nothing short of cruel, sadistic”.

These are the people of whom the BBC’s Clive Myrie said: “They all pray they’ll be welcomed in other countries as human beings. That’s all they ask.”

In a letter to Patel, the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has slammed the “lack of humanity” in the UK response: “Our coasts have been the scene of too many human tragedies. Let’s not add to that those Ukrainian families.”

To all this, Johnson’s approach has been to deny the official figures and insist that “we are a very, very generous country”. But, he went on, while an open-door policy was fine for EU countries that can’t control their borders anyway (yet somehow manage to have vastly different attitudes and acceptance numbers for refugees), this was not “appropriate” for Britain.

Another supposed “world-beating” effort by the UK has been the implementation of sanctions. But as with all the other claims, it doesn’t bear scrutiny. Johnson defended lengthy checks on refugees as sensible, echoing Patel’s fears that otherwise “Russian infiltrators” might sneak in. Yet less rigour is being applied to the potential risk of Russian oligarchs with Putin links – including Evgeny Lebedev, ennobled despite apparent security services objections. While the country lags behind in the number of oligarchs sanctioned and gives those it will punish time to spirit away their money and sell their assets, Johnson claims criticism about this makes the UK look “anti-Russian” and plays into Putin’s hands.

Diffident under questioning, Johnson is more comfortable Churchill-splaining his excellent wheezes to lead the world, the latest of which was his Six-Point Plan, no doubt a great relief to Washington, Nato and the EU as they seek ideas to tighten the screws on Putin.

These include “mobilising an international humanitarian coalition for Ukraine”, further sanctions on Moscow, renewing diplomatic efforts for de-escalation and strengthening security and resilience – obvious measures begging for cynical wags to take them on.

Nazir Afzal, former chief prosecutor for north-west England, was among those who obliged: “1. Mobilised 50 (Fifty) visas to refugees, 2. Supported 1000s of visas for Oligarchs, 3. Increased the time for assets to be concealed, 4. Halted compliance with the rule of law, 5. Renew the attacks on other non-white refugees and 6. Strengthened the positions of your donors and allies.”

In the past few days, the confusion over refugee pathways has exposed Patel for not knowing her brief. The “world-beating” element must then refer to her merciless attitudes – the sort, according to the comedian Alexei Sayle, who would unplug your life support to charge her phone.

But what of the “world-beating” Liz “Insta” Truss – whose efforts to pose around the world in ways that evoke Margaret Thatcher have led to dubious claims that she is having a “good war”? When questioned by the parliamentary foreign affairs select committee this week, she was humiliated for clearly failing to understand how the international criminal court worked and her inability to answer many of the questions posed by MPs. “She just doesn’t do her homework”, said Labour committee member Chris Bryant.

Incessant, clearly unfounded claims of world-beating greatness are usually the preserve of second-rate leaders of countries with little global influence – not those actually leading the world and making a difference. People with an inferiority complex who lack the self-awareness to keep a lid on outlandish, easily disprovable boasts on the world stage. The sort of people who would invent the empty phrase, global Britain. Who would claim they were “winning the pandemic” while racking up one of the highest death tolls in the world. Or trumpeting the “world-beating” benefits of Brexit and their wisdom in choosing it while complaining about the damage caused by the entirely predictable border checks the EU applies to “third countries”.

So much of what is being said by government ministers sounds so obviously ridiculous and without factual basis that you wonder why they say this at all, if not simply to signal to a certain, rightwing part of the electorate that they have their back. Since securing Brexit and coming to power on the back of jingoistic slogans every bit as empty as “world-beating”, Johnson’s government has diluted institutions, brushed aside norms and weakened protections for dissenters of all kinds to the cheer of a loud section of the right. In doing so, it has damaged a democratic legacy that has more claims to being world-beating than anything Johnson and Co may lay claim to.

The ongoing political disingenuousness includes Dominic Raab’s widely slammed assertion that if the government were to “just open the door” that would “undermine the popular support” for helping Ukrainians and hurt what he called “genuine refugees”.

In Poland, mothers have been leaving out prams for Ukrainian refugees with babies, while Germans have been turning up to railway stations to offer shelter and supplies to those in need. There are many people in Britain who would do the same. According to YouGov, more than three-quarters of British respondents would support a scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees, while charities, churches, community groups and local authorities have lined up to receive them.

As declared by a sign held up by a protester in central London: “Say it loud and clear, refugees welcome here”.

But for the denizens of Westminster, it’s obviously not nearly loud and clear enough. Who needs reality when we already have a string of “world-beating” distortions?

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