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10 March 2022

The Conservatives’ disregard for Ukrainian refugees is shameful

Rather than helping those fleeing violence and tyranny, the Tories are worried about losing votes to Nigel Farage.

By David Gauke

If one listens to some politicians or engages on social media, the government’s record on Ukraine is either world-beating or an international embarrassment. Neither characterisation is true – it is a genuinely mixed performance.

To the government’s credit, the UK has long been providing military training to the Ukrainian army – training that has been used to good effect. Intelligence services identified the risks of a Russian invasion and made those concerns public when most analysts thought this was an unlikely outcome. The Ministry of Defence moved quickly to provide arms, especially the NLAWs (Next Generation Light Anti-tank Weapons) that have been so effective in taking out Russian tanks. Ben Wallace, the Defence Secretary, has impressed domestically and internationally. And Boris Johnson is evidently popular with the Ukrainian people and their president

These are not small matters. The most crucial factor in securing Ukraine’s future and constraining Russia more widely in Europe is the effectiveness of Ukraine’s military response, and there is no doubt that the UK has made an important contribution.

Sanctions have proved to be a more difficult issue for the government. It has been accused of being too slow or too unambitious in its announcements and dates of implementation. This is embarrassing for a government that made great play of the fact Brexit meant we would be more nimble than the EU in the UK’s sanctions regime. Its response is to give itself the power to temporarily freeze the assets of those who have had their assets frozen elsewhere. In other words, we stay as one of the crowd.

Given that sanctions are likely to be in place for some time, the race to be the first to announce or implement is not a first-order issue. What matters is where Britain gets to and its ability to sustain an effective regime that will inflict substantial economic pain on Russia and restrict Vladimir Putin’s options. The UK is playing its part.

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The criticism of the government’s treatment of refugees is, however, fully justified. The scale of the challenge – at the time of writing, over two million Ukrainians are believed to have fled west – is huge but it was also predictable. Ministers should have received advice weeks in advance of the Russian invasion about the options available in the event of a refugee crisis. At that point, decisions were presumably made that access to the UK was only going to be made available to very restricted numbers of Ukrainians. Why was such an approach taken?

Public opinion strongly supports allowing Ukrainian refugees into this country. Such an outcome was predictable in that it was inevitable that television pictures of Russian tanks in Ukraine would evoke great public sympathy for the Ukrainians. To believe that the UK as a whole would be begrudging in allowing refugees to settle here in the event of any invasion misjudges the nation.

Putting aside for the moment matters of morality and operational competence, there is, however, a political logic to the government’s position. The recent history of elections in the UK suggests that a tough line on immigration is not a vote loser. Ministers will have asked themselves not what the public’s attitude would be when the conflict was fresh in everyone’s minds but what the attitude might be in 2024. More specifically, ministers would have been thinking about the attitude of the swing voters in swing seats at the next general election.  

These are voters who backed Nigel Farage’s Ukip because he spoke for them on immigration from eastern Europe, who voted to leave the EU because they wanted control of their borders and then voted for Boris Johnson because he would deliver this. What would they think if the country had opened its doors to hundreds of thousands of eastern Europeans once again? It is not hard to imagine how Nigel Farage might exploit this by the time of the next general election, telling people that their votes and interests had been ignored once again. Ministers understand their coalition of support all too well and fear that it would be fractured in these circumstances.  

It is also worth noting that Labour’s position is not to lift visa requirements on Ukrainians (as all EU member states have done) either, but to focus on the extent of the restrictions and the competence of the administration of various schemes. Neither of the major parties want to take much of a risk when it comes to the new swing voters.

There is certainly much to criticise in the Home Office’s operational performance. The appointment of Richard Harrington, a decent and capable man, as the minister for refugees is encouraging and an online visa application process constitutes progress, but any system that requires visa checks to be carried out before a Ukrainian refugee can enter the UK is bound to be cumbersome and bureaucratic. When it comes to preventing Russian agents entering the UK (one implausible ministerial explanation for the approach), it is a measure that is unlikely to be effective.

The most humane approach would be to follow the lead of the EU and allow Ukrainians freedom of entry to the UK, perhaps with Covid-style locator forms. If this can be done by 27 European countries, it can be done by the UK.

The government should focus upon helping those fleeing violence and tyranny. Instead, it is worrying about losing votes to Nigel Farage. That is shameful.

[See also: The UK has taken just 300 Ukrainian refugees]

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