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25 February 2022

Borders bill would treat Ukrainian refugees “as criminals”, ministers are warned

MPs have been briefed that the war could create five million refugees, while peers prepare to oppose legislation that may deny them safety.

By Anoosh Chakelian

British politicians have been warned that the Nationality and Borders Bill would endanger Ukrainian refugees before a crucial vote on Monday (28 February).

More than 50 charities, NGOs and aid agencies, led by the Refugee Council, said that the Russian invasion of Ukraine “illuminates the crucial flaw in the Nationality and Borders Bill”, in a letter published in the Times on 25 February, a longer version of which was sent to the New Statesman.

The legislation would mean that Ukrainians trying to seek asylum in the UK could be treated as second tier refugees, or even as criminals, because they would be arriving via irregular routes. There is currently no specific UK resettlement scheme in place for them.

A longer version of the letter, signed by the heads of major charities such as Amnesty International and Save the Children, sent to the New Statesman argued that the bill “undermines our obligation to give all who seek asylum a fair hearing on our soil. Those who take dangerous journeys over land to the UK will be treated as criminals.”

The authors added: “We urge the government to rethink this harmful bill. The UK must uphold its proud record of helping those fleeing war and oppression, rather than discriminating against refugees depending on how they have reached our shores.”

[See also: What does the Nationality and Borders Bill mean for you?]

A controversial clause in the bill allows for “differential treatment” of refugees depending on how they reached the UK. This means those deemed to have entered unlawfully would have fewer rights, despite the majority of refugees having no option but to use irregular routes to travel to the UK. Peers are preparing to oppose this clause — clause 11 — in a vote in the House of Lords on Monday.

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The bill would also make it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK “without a valid entry clearance”, the maximum sentence for which would be four years’ imprisonment. Those helping asylum seekers into the country would also be breaking the law, whereas existing legislation says this is only prohibited if it is done “for gain”.

The UN refugee agency has concluded that the bill “would penalise most refugees seeking asylum in the country, creating an asylum model that undermines established international refugee protection rules and practices”.

In a two-page briefing sent out on 24 February to MPs, seen by the New Statesman, the Refugee Council warned that the war in Ukraine “might generate five million refugees in Europe”.

With hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians heading to the borders to flee, all UK visa services in Kyiv are suspended, the Home Office has said. It added that Ukrainians who aren’t immediate family members of British nationals are “currently unable to make visa applications to visit, work, study or join family in the UK through a [Visa Application Centre] in Ukraine”.

A government spokesperson tells the New Statesman its Lviv centre is still open “for family members of British nationals resident in Ukraine” and it has beefed up visa staff in neighbouring countries where Ukrainian nationals can apply. But the government’s “priority remains supporting British nationals who are resident in Ukraine and their dependents who want to leave the country”.

Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, has announced visa extensions for Ukrainians in the UK, and Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, has signalled that troops will help the “humanitarian exodus in neighbouring countries”, but neither clarified measures to resettle Ukrainians in the UK.

Two weeks ago, application fees were temporarily waived for those eligible for entry under the Family Migration route, and visas were being fast-tracked.

The Refugee Council is calling for the government to relax visa requirements to help Ukrainians join family members already in the UK, and allow a wider range of family members to join them — both things it says can be achieved immediately “with a stroke of a pen”. It is also calling for a humanitarian visa route so that people can travel safely to the UK before claiming asylum, and an extension of the government’s existing resettlement scheme for refugees from conflict zones.

The New Statesman has asked the Home Office whether there will be new measures, such as a specific resettlement scheme, how many Ukrainians the government expects to take in, and what other routes are available to them to reach the UK.

This article was updated on 27 February with comment from a government spokesperson.

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