The Russian army’s indiscriminate violence against the Ukrainian people has sparked their exodus to countries across Europe. Planned ceasefires to allow people to flee Ukraine’s besieged cities have been broken by brutal bombardment. More than 1.7 million have fled the country with around a million crossing the border into Poland, according to the UN.
In the face of such an urgent crisis, the government’s response is muddled. At present, only those with family in the UK are issued visas while a scheme for businesses and individuals to sponsor refugees is yet to be set up. The Home Office said yesterday that, thus far, only 300 visas have been issued out of 8,900 submitted applications – just over 3 per cent. In contrast, the EU has waived all visa restrictions for three years. And remember: the government has had months to prepare for this situation as Russia started amassing troops on Ukraine’s border in November 2021.
The lackadaisical policy is reflected in cabinet confusion. Priti Patel’s plan to extend the scheme to anyone fleeing the conflict, even if they didn’t have ties with the UK, was quickly spurned by No 10 and the Foreign Office yesterday. Boris Johnson rejected calls to ease visa restrictions, while James Cleverly, a foreign office minister, said he did not think the current requirements would change. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, has called the government’s response to the exodus a “total disgrace”.
That confusion is matched by division on the Tory back benches. Thirty-seven moderate Tory MPs have signed a letter to the Prime Minister urging him to go further, but Edward Leigh MP has said “we really feel we have done our bit in terms of migration from eastern Europe”. Leigh appears unaligned with the public: almost two thirds would support Ukrainian refugees being granted visas to enter the UK without restriction, including a majority of Tory voters, according to New Statesman polling.
Until now, the government’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and Johnson’s leading role on the world stage, has bolstered the Prime Minister’s precarious position. Indeed, since the war began Johnson’s approval rating has recovered from the partygate scandals. But the risk for the government now is that a weak response to the refugee crisis undermines its moral authority on Ukraine. While war may be upending political assumptions across Europe, the Conservatives’ conventional approach to refugees remains resilient.