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The government needs to stop patting itself on the back over Ukrainian refugees

U-turns and new schemes are welcome, but Britain still isn’t welcoming to those fleeing conflict

Refugee children fleeing Ukraine look out the window as they arrive into Hungary. Photo:Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Franz Kafka famously didn’t finish his novels The Trial and The Castle. With its recent contortions over Ukrainian refugees, the Home Office looks like it could have a good shot at completing these absurd tales of senseless bureaucracy.

After initial inertia following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Home Office offered a “family scheme” that allowed some Ukrainians to reunite with some family members. But when actual British-based Ukrainians tried to bring in actual family members many found that it somehow didn’t seem to apply to them.

Then the “surge” of Home Office staff sent to help turned out to be a handful of bewildered men armed with confectionery in an empty lobby in Calais and a sign telling refugees to go elsewhere. A real visa office was kept secret apparently to evade the wrong kind of refugees. Visa centres hundreds of miles away were shut, had weeks-long waits for appointments, or both. The online application system gave instructions in English for applicants who may not speak the language on how to jump through contorted hoops, and assumed the availability of devices and documents they may not have – what with all that fleeing in a hurry and in terror while their homes were being bombed that refugees generally have to contend with.

In that context, the new Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme is a welcome development. But doubts – and some of the same-old bureaucratic hurdles – remain. Experienced charities and refugee groups have “some involvement” but weren’t central to the planning. Prospective hosts have to identify the refugees they want to help.

“These are 50-page forms that have to be completed online, asking people who have fled with nothing to find an internet cafe to upload documents they don’t have, water bills, mortgage documents, to prove who they are,” Labour’s Lisa Nandy said in an angry response to Housing and Communities Secretary Michael Gove after he announced the latest refugee plan.

This was a DIY asylum scheme, Nandy complained: “He can’t seriously be asking Ukrainian families who are fleeing Vladimir Putin, who’ve left their homes with nothing, to get onto Instagram and advertise themselves in the hope that a British family might notice them.”

And while insisting on the need to thoroughly vet incoming Ukrainian women and children in case they are Russian military saboteurs in disguise, the government said it would be instituting light-touch checks on potential sponsors. This prompted Enver Solomon, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, to worry that there might not be the right support for the traumatised women and children likely to be making the journey: “It’s like asking people to be foster carers without any robust checks, training or having a social worker in place to support them.”

Many MPs, including Conservatives, have been critical of the UK refugee policies so far, some calling them “mean-spirited”. Yet with each announcement, government figures wasted no opportunity to applaud their own generosity.  When he announced the new scheme, Gove said the UK had a history of “supporting the most vulnerable during their darkest hours”. He even had an outburst in parliament about how he had “had it up to here with people trying to suggest that this country is not generous”.

And for no particular reason at all, here is a quote from The Trial: “They’re talking about things of which they don’t have the slightest understanding….

It’s only because of their stupidity that they’re able to be so sure of themselves.“

Not a week goes by without a minister praising the UK for welcoming more refugees than other European countries in recent years. This is not true. The oft-invoked history of generosity is selective. Even the acclaimed Kindertransport of Jewish children involved only “Kinder” because adults were not allowed to come with them. Unaccompanied children are not even part of current schemes.

But debate over the contrived boasting and tortuously complicated pathways is hiding the essential problem: Refugees should not be applying for visas at all.

The 1951 Geneva Convention for refugees makes it clear that refugees are fleeing in dire circumstances and at pace, which means they must cross borders without travel documents such as passports and visas. They must be able to arrive at any signatory state and ask for asylum, with the right for that claim to be assessed property once in that country – not while waiting for permission to enter in hotels, makeshift camps or detention centres. This applies to all nationals, without requiring separate, complicated schemes.

“Sadly we are in the third week of this dreadful war in Ukraine on our doorstep and we are still talking about schemes, visa schemes, sponsorship schemes and other ways of people to fill in forms online and offline and so on, whilst we have this refugee convention,” the Scottish Refugee Council’s Sabir Zazal, himself a refugee from Afghanistan, told LBC.

Having made it difficult for people to seek protection here, the UK needs to dispense with the bureaucracy in favour of humanity for all refugees, whether Ukrainians or Afghans or Eritreans, Zazal said. “It’s important the government comes to its senses.”

This does not mean other states should be let off the hook. The European Union has been infinitely more generous in the case of Ukrainian refugees – now more than 3 million – because it waived existing visa requirements. But it still has them.

In fact, since the 1990s, there has been a proliferation both in the UK and other European countries of border controls, biometric monitoring, detention centres, deportation, and economic sanctions, such as limiting welfare, according to Lucy Mayblin, author of several books on refugees and migration. This trend began when European governments started to perceive many asylum applicants as not “real refugees”, and began to chip away at the human right to apply for asylum.

“It is hard to say why, since they were fleeing wars and persecution, without drawing attention to the fact that they were not white and that they were arriving often from former European colonies, from ‘developing’ countries,” wrote Mayblin in an article for the LSE Politics and Policy Blog.

Carriers and ferries faced fines if they allowed in people without valid visas – which included refugees seeking safety, such as the Syrians fleeing the civil war in 2015. An obsession with “asylum shopping” – referring to people passing through a “safe” country to go somewhere else, often where they have family – led to rules allowing states to send asylum seekers back to the first country of arrival in Europe, in contravention of Geneva convention.

These rules – and the increasingly tight policing of them — are behind the dangerous, sometimes fatal, crossings asylum seekers have been having to make, on foot, clinging on to lorries, or squashing into unworthy vessels across the Mediterranean or the Channel simply to be able to ask for protection. People have been arrested for giving food, shelter or lifts to asylum seekers, or even saving them from drowning. 

As fear and bureaucracy triumph over what are supposed to be humanitarian, European ideals, home secretary Priti Patel’s dogged, merciless insistence that she won’t join other countries in waiving visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees is simply consistent with what has gone before.

But even with its past record, in trying to find schemes that stay as true as possible to that doctrine while trying to present this as generosity, her government department has surpassed itself with its extraordinary bureaucratic gymnastics and creativity.

No wonder these efforts came up at the BAFTAs. Describing a world-class director as a “visionary empowered to change the world with a story that they are burning to tell”, who leads a family of talented strangers on a difficult journey whilst inspiring inclusivity and equality, actor and director Andy Serkis said: “So it is no surprise that Priti Patel on her debut feature ‘Hostile Environment’ found enormous problems. And that her follow-up movie ‘All refugees are welcome but some are more welcome than others’ is a complete nightmare.”

In the end, regardless of the imaginative smoke and mirrors used to hide it, if you ask people fleeing war and persecution to apply for visas, you’re not treating them as refugees. Doing anything else is a distraction from that central tenet – a whole lot of sound and fury, signifying absolute diddly squat.

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