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A shambolic response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

This article was originally submitted on the 12th March 2022

For the past few weeks, one thing has dominated the news: the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Thousands of people – both soldiers and civilians – have been killed in the conflict so far, with Putin threatening further tragedies. Millions have already been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in Europe and even more are expected to have no choice but to follow. And, ever since their invasion began, it seems that the UK has had only one important question on its mind:

“But will we still be letting Russia take part in Eurovision?”

You see, as countries across the globe have raced to Ukraine’s aid and tried to quell “the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II”, the UK government has been watching absent-mindedly from the sidelines, their priorities completely warped. As of 11 March, an estimated 2.5 million Ukrainian citizens have been forced to flee their country and leave their homes behind, and more than 5 million additional people may have to follow suit as Russia’s invasion progresses. EU countries in particular have rushed to welcome them in their time of need with open arms. A Temporary Protection Directive has been activated to allow Ukrainians to live, work, get an education and access housing in a new country for up to three years. Since the war was declared, Poland alone has accepted 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, and others have waived usual rules, including the need for a visa, to accept people in their hundreds of thousands.

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Meanwhile, the UK government has celebrated issuing visas to under 1000 people, leaving countless more in limbo as they attempt to navigate the slow, draconian process that has been put in place. Though, of course, I’m sure they appreciated Downing Street being lit up with the colours of the Ukrainian flag for a night – perhaps the pretty lights were a welcome distraction from being left stranded in a war zone.

Despite some relaxation of the rules, the UK’s policies are still simply too harsh to be effective. Home Secretary Priti Patel (British politics’ answer to Maleficent) has been widely criticised for only offering refuge to Ukrainians who have close family already in the UK, and even then refusing to let anyone in unless they have a passport and visa. Although it was recently announced that the process can now be conducted online and biometric data can be collected upon arrival in the UK, it still isn’t enough – many Ukrainian refugees will not have access to phones, the internet or their passports, and under the current policy they will just be left by the wayside. 

The newest plan isn’t much better, either: giving UK citizens the ability to sponsor and house a Ukrainian refugee for a particular period of time, regardless of whether they have family here. Although any step that can be taken to help refugees is a positive one, the scheme just puts the pressure on the general public to do the government’s job. A crisis as big as this one needs to be met with an organised, compassionate and effective approach headed by the people powerful enough to pull it off – a few volunteers here and there don’t have the resources or platform to do that. Obviously, we have to question whether the government is capable of such a task either – some of them don’t seem to understand quite what’s going on. Notably, MP Kevin Foster took to Twitter to suggest that people who didn’t qualify for a visa should just sit tight for now and take their minds off things by applying to the UK’s seasonal worker scheme. In his ignorance, it seemed he was all but one step away from declaring “let them pick fruit!” like some sort of knock-off Marie Antoinette. And he’s the Tory Minister for Safe and Legal Migration.

With as many as 7 million Ukrainians at risk of being displaced by the conflict in total, it’s clear that we all have to do our bit to ensure the safety of as many people as possible. The bravery of the people forced into a situation many could never imagine has been admired by the whole world, but the conflict has also highlighted the brutality of the UK’s immigration system. Tragically, it appears to be the case that our government would rather see people die than work to amend unfair, outdated policies and guarantee their safety. The system in place right now – especially compared to the wider global response – clearly falls short of even the bare minimum, and we’re going to need more than blue and yellow lights to fix it.

Image courtesy of President.gov.ua on Wikimedia Commons