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27 February 2022updated 28 Feb 2022 9:47am

The UK government’s Ukraine response must shift to refugees

While the pressure on No 10 to exert more economic sanctions on Russia continues, the focus is now turning to helping displaced Ukrainians.

By Ailbhe Rea

While the dire situation in Ukraine unfolds before our eyes, the political pressure on the UK government is shifting.

Since the crisis began, the focus in Westminster has been on economic sanctions against Russia, and the wider effort to curtail Russian power, both hard and soft. Boris Johnson’s own backbenchers have been forthright in advocating for a tougher response, including Tom Tugendhat’s recent call on the government to expel all Russian citizens connected to the Putin regime. 

The opposition, too, has been pushing the government to place further economic pressure on Russia, with Labour’s shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, and shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, writing to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and Chancellor Rishi Sunak this morning. Reeves and Lammy called on the government to widen export controls to include luxury goods; widen the number of banks prevented from accessing sterling; expand sectoral sanctions to cover insurance and further limit the supply of goods, services and technology to the energy sector and other strategic sectors of the Russian economy; and, finally, to apply sanctions to wealth held under the name of family members. 

The government, however, pre-empted many of these demands this morning, with Truss happily using the language of “degrading” and “tightening the ratchet on the Russian economy” on the Sunday politics shows, alongside briefing the Sunday papers about further efforts to sanction Russian oligarchs with sizeable interests in the UK. 

Those briefings pre-empt and explain why the UK is acting slowly on some of these areas, with Truss nodding to the legal difficulties of sanctioning some notoriously litigious London-based Russian kleptocrats. 

“We’ve already had letters to the Foreign Office, from lawyers, threatening us,” she tells the Sunday Times. “So we have to make sure the cases are properly prepared and we have the right evidence before we sanction these individuals. That is why we’re taking it step by step, but we are working through that hit list and we will continue to sanction new oligarchs every few weeks.” While the pressure on the government to exert more economic sanctions on Russia continues, it is ahead of the story, for now. 

Instead, one of the biggest demands on the government is now on its provisions – or lack thereof – to accept Ukrainian refugees. A row on Twitter broke out overnight between the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, and Lammy, about the government’s failure to waive visa requirements for Ukrainians. Another government minister was forced to delete a tweet implying that Ukrainians could apply for seasonal jobs in the UK as fruit-pickers: an inadequate offer to those fleeing war. 

The Nationality and Borders Bill has its third reading in the House of Lords this week, with measures that would essentially risk criminalising some Ukrainian refugees who enter the UK. The next challenge for the UK government will be reconciling a refugee policy designed for the small boats crisis in the channel with the new refugee crisis flowing out of Ukraine. 

[See also: Has Vladimir Putin launched an unwinnable war?]

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