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  1. The Weekend Report
18 February 2023

A cruise ship for Ukrainians exposes a hierarchy of refugees

Why has the UK spent up to £100m on cruise ships for those fleeing the Russian invasion, when others in danger have no safe route to asylum?

By Freddie Hayward

In late August the German-owned cruise ship, MS Ambition, left the Norwegian port of Kristiansand. It sailed through the Skagerrak strait, across the North Sea, beneath the Orkney Islands and around the top of mainland Scotland. It then passed between the isles of Skye and Lewis, turned around the bottom of the Kintyre peninsula and up the River Clyde. Two days after it left Norway, Ambition came to a stop in King George V dock on the outskirts of Glasgow.

The boat was there as part of a £100m contract between the Scottish government and Corporate Travel Management, a travel agency, to provide accommodation for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. This novel way of housing refugees has exposed the condition of Scotland’s housing stock – and revealed a state-imposed hierarchy among refugees.

The day the Ambition docked the Sherbrooke Mosspark church in the south of the city hosted a gathering for the Ukrainians. Earlier this month I went to the church to meet the vicar, Adam Dillon. A German copy of Martin Luther’s 95 theses hung behind his desk. Four low armchairs sat on a thick red carpet. Dillon explained how the church had made connections between his congregation and those on the boat.

“It was very clear from the start that they were interested in getting to know folks here in Scotland and learning about our language and culture and trying to find a place they could call home,” Dillon said of the refugees. The church shifted from providing practical help to putting on ceilidhs and hosting the Ukrainians for Christmas dinner in the hotel across the road.

Dillon offered to give me a lift to Braehead, where the ship was moored. As we approached the dock on the main road, the boat reared up before us through the rain-specked windscreen. The sky was heavy. We pulled up on the side of the road, got out and walked round a large electricity box to a spiked fence to get a better view of the dock. The long, white side of the ship was punctuated with the orange tops of eight lifeboats. The chimney stack was painted a lugubrious purple.

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Dillon remembered how people would come to this spot during lockdown to spy empty cruise ships they had been on before. To the side of Ambition several large, white cylinders lay on the ground. “Wind turbines waiting to be shipped out,” Dillon said. Opposite the turbines, red bollards marked the shoreline and diggers trundled around. The Ukrainians weren’t allowed to leave the boat on foot. Instead, shuttle buses took them to the gated entrance of the dock, where they could get a public bus or walk thirty minutes to Glasgow’s single-line underground.

They could also stay on the shuttle to the Braehead shopping centre a couple minutes down the road. Later, a Ukrainian I’d been messaging on WhatsApp rang me from Braehead. “I’m just buying some things but I’ll be free for a call once I’m back on the boat.”

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Before Russia invaded his country, Andriy Strekhaliuk ran a consultancy in organisational development and was developing an app to help parents and children to spend more time together offline. When he came to Scotland in September, the cruise ship was recommended to him as a good option for families. He and his wife share a cabin. His three children – two girls and one boy – are in the cabin opposite. He had no complaints about the conditions on the boat and was anxious to express his gratitude to have a safe place for his family.

“We have a cinema, where today they are showing Matilda,” Andriy said. “The management of the ship managed to get some table tennis for people to play. People have gatherings here. We hosted a concert here last Sunday to raise some money for the Ukrainian army to buy a vehicle. In the past, we had a Christmas play. This is a small community, a small social experiment.”

The Scottish government has always said the cruise ship is temporary accommodation. The refugees were supposed to be matched with permanent housing as soon as possible, but the process has not been smooth. When the contract for Ambition ends on 31 March, they will need to find somewhere else to live. Andriy faced demands for half a year’s rent up front but he’s now agreed a deal on a private rental flat with help from the charity Homes for Good. Another person on the ship told me they were uncertain whether they would be able to find housing by the end of March, though the government has insisted that everyone on the boat will receive an offer of accommodation in some form.

The problems the cruise ship reveals go deeper than housing. There’s something more unsettling involved too: the statuses given different refugees in Britain. There are only three main legal schemes for people fleeing danger to enter the UK: the Hongkonger BNO scheme, the Afghan resettlement scheme, and the Ukrainian one. Those wishing to seek asylum from other countries must do so from within the UK. But they cannot get a visa to come to the UK for that purpose, meaning many decide to cross the Channel at the whim of people traffickers.

There are vast differences between the three schemes themselves, but each provides more support than the ordinary asylum process. The only reason the Ukrainians were on Ambition in the first place was that the Scottish government chose to become a “super sponsor” under the Homes for Ukrainians visa scheme, which allows Ukrainians to come to the country if a household takes them in. Ukrainians who arrive under the sponsorship scheme do not automatically become asylum seekers. Unlike asylum seekers, they have the right to work, study and claim benefits for three years.

The scheme for Hongkongers, which was set up when the Chinese Communist Party suppressed democracy in Hong Kong, confers the right to work, study and live in the UK for up to five years with a route towards permanent residency. The Afghan scheme allows people to settle upon arrival.

This hierarchy is often absent in the public debate and refugees are often spoken about as if they are one bloc. But why, then, have we spent up to £100m on two cruise ships for those fleeing the war in Ukraine, but have only let in 5,000 of those fleeing the Taliban a year? Is it the level of the UK’s involvement in the tragedy which creates a duty to protect those affected? Is it geographical proximity? Or that the threat to the UK is greater from Russia than the Taliban? Is it cultural?

Each of the three visa schemes has a direct link with UK foreign policy. The Afghan scheme was set up for translators and others who aided the British military in its campaigns against the Taliban. Hong Kong is a former British colony suffering under Chinese state repression. The Ukrainian war is in our European neighbourhood.

For those who fall outside these schemes, seeking asylum is very different. A week before I visited Ambition a far-right group called Patriotic Alternative protested outside a hotel housing asylum seekers five miles down the River Clyde. A similar protest outside a hotel in Liverpool turned into a riot. Further demonstrations were said to be planned in Rotherham, Folkestone, Skegness and the Vale of Glamorgan. It’s hard to imagine Ukrainian refugees receiving the same hostility. 

Ukrainians and asylum seekers are also housed in very different areas. One in four of the UK’s asylum seekers are housed in just ten local authorities, nine of which are among the most deprived areas in the UK. Only one of the top ten – Barking and Dagenham in London – is in the south of England. In comparison, the local authority with the most sponsors of Ukrainians was the relatively wealthy Buckinghamshire.

At the same time, there’s a drive towards creating a hostile environment for other asylum seekers in Westminster. The Home Office is reported to have drawn up plans to deport those who arrive illegally without providing more safe and legal routes, such as the Ukrainian scheme.

The cruise ship is a symbol of British compassion. But it exposes a confused hierarchy among refugees that the British government refuses to confront. Dillon worries that when the Ukrainians disembark and Ambition sets sail for Spain, the refugees might become invisible, dispersed around the country, without the purple-topped, 700ft boat proclaiming their presence. They may become unseen, like other refugees. But the rules that govern their lives will remain distinct.

[See also: The New Statesman’s migration tracker]

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