The violence and chaos caused by Russia’s military onslaught in Ukraine is creating a humanitarian disaster. One million people have left the country to seek refuge, the swiftest exodus this century according to the UN. Despite the overwhelming human tragedy on display, the British government has yet to set out a response that adequately meets the scale of the humanitarian need. The government must now step up its efforts with urgent and effective humanitarian support that protects the lives of displaced Ukrainians.
People displaced by the ravages of war and violence deserve compassion and support. The UK public are clear that they want to see bolder action to help Ukrainians fleeing the war; recent polling shows that three-quarters of British people want to follow the lead of other European countries by allowing Ukrainians to come to the UK without a visa. Peace vigils and demonstrations have been held across the country, and communities have donated generously to fundraising drives. From London to Liverpool and from Stirling to Swansea, the resounding call is that we must do all we can to support people fleeing war.
Local councils are already taking action by committing to providing safety and support to Ukrainian refugees, but the national government’s practical response seems out of step with its tough rhetoric.
So far, the government has made a number of limited, piecemeal announcements setting out how they intend to assist displaced Ukrainians. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has left the door open for further phases to be announced in addition to the two phases already announced, and these steps can’t come soon enough.
The first phase of humanitarian support relaxed existing visa rules so that people already settled in the UK could bring their Ukrainian family here. This means that those applying to come to the UK will not have to pass the usual salary and language tests, but there will still be an application process. Extra resources are also being sent to neighbouring countries such as Poland, as well as to Ukrainian cities, with the aim of accelerating visa applications and reaching more people.
But the current family visa rules have a very narrow definition of who counts as “immediate family” – typically only dependents under 18 and spouses or partners. On Tuesday, Patel announced that they have expanded this definition for Ukrainians to include their parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings. But still, stories are emerging of people who are being left behind despite this change in the rules. Cousins, aunts, uncles – indeed, all those who make up our chosen family, as opposed to our blood relatives – still cannot join people in the UK. And people who are here on temporary visas – who now cannot return home – are not able to bring their family members at all.
The second phase of the government’s humanitarian plan includes a commitment to opening up a new scheme in which Ukrainians can be directly sponsored to come to the UK by communities, business, local councils and charities. Patel was keen to emphasise that there would be no cap on the numbers of people that could take advantage of this route – quickly spinning the announcement as one of immense generosity.
But previous community sponsorship schemes have struggled to be an effective vehicle for helping people seek sanctuary in the UK. Fewer than 500 people have been sponsored to come to the UK since such schemes were established in 2016 for other countries. Sponsorship schemes also push the costs of offering refuge onto community groups, charities and councils rather than being borne by central government.
The UK must go far beyond these first steps and establish a comprehensive resettlement programme like the ones designed for refugees from Afghanistan and Syria. This would directly assess the claims of displaced people in countries neighbouring Ukraine and relocate those deemed most vulnerable to the UK. Councils across the country would likely welcome this move and already have the expertise to deliver it effectively.
But a resettlement scheme is unlikely to be sufficient alone. Since the pandemic, resettlement has stalled, and progress is slow in getting these back up and running at pre-pandemic levels. Just 1,500 people were resettled in the UK in the past year. It is clear that the government must heed the calls of campaigners and commit to resettling 10,000 refugees from across the globe every year.
What we need to see is a fully fledged commitment to supporting anyone who requires sanctuary. Resettlement and community sponsorship are no doubt part of the package of humanitarian support that is needed, but to meet the scale of the crisis, we need multiple safe routes. This could include providing humanitarian visas, which would offer many of the same protections as refugee status but do not require an individual to prove that they are at risk of persecution based on race, religion or political opinion – they only have to be fleeing a country in which they face serious risk of harm.
We also need to address the elephant in the room. The government is pushing through legislation that will make the task of supporting Ukrainian refugees – indeed refugees from any conflict and war across the world – an utter nightmare. The Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through parliament, makes arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence. This will effectively create a two-tier system that will criminalise those seeking asylum who arrive without the correct paperwork.
Both the Senedd and Holyrood governments have outright rejected the bill, with statements that cite concerns that it will “exacerbate inequity and harm communities”. The House of Lords also sent a resounding message of dissent to this inhumane and cruel piece of legislation. They voted overwhelmingly to reject Clause 11 of the bill, which would see those arriving without permission turned away.
When the bill comes back to the Commons, the government must heed the warning of the Lords and scrap these harmful clauses. Anyone claiming asylum in the UK must be given a fair hearing, not penalised for how they arrive. War and conflict do not typically create the conditions for filling in paperwork correctly.
The Home Secretary and the government are at risk of being seriously out of step with what is needed to fulfil our international and humanitarian obligations, as well as with the demands of the public to do more for the people of Ukraine. The British people, local and regional governments, and even a fair portion of the Conservative Party itself, want to see bolder action from the government – last week, 27 senior Conservatives wrote to Boris Johnson to demand more decisive action on Ukrainian refugees. Phase three of the government’s humanitarian plan must see a step change in pace and action that meets the demands of the situation – before it is too late.
Lucy Mort is a senior research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)