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Volunteer refugee hosts shame the Home Office

While Priti Patel's department ties itself in knots, communities are desperate to help people fleeing Ukraine.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Across the country, Britons are preparing to host Ukrainian refugees. A new scheme called “Homes for Ukraine” was announced on Monday by Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, whereby individuals, community groups, charities and businesses can put Ukrainians up for six months.

From parishioners in the Cornish village of St Mabyn — who tell me they have been waiting for a way to help Ukrainian families for two weeks — to anarchist squatters occupying a sanctioned oligarch’s Belgravia mansion in the hope that it could be repurposed to house refugees, a variety of volunteers have mobilised.

“The hardened attitude of our Home Office is just shameful,” says Esther Dudley, 65, chairwoman of the friends of St Mabyn parish church, who is frustrated that such a scheme has taken so long. “There’s a willingness even here in a small, country area to feel compassion and generosity towards these poor people. A lot of us are prepared to help. Surely a community, and one with funds, should be able to do something, but you see families shut out of Britain day after day.”

Gove estimated that “tens of thousands” of Ukrainian refugees would be housed through Homes for Ukraine, but this figure is uncertain. More than 20,000 potential sponsors registered in the first two hours, and the website crashed within minutes of going live. By this morning (15 March) almost 90,000 people had registered their interest. In Ireland there are more offers than incoming people: about 5,000 displaced Ukrainians have arrived there, and there are more than 20,000 offers of accommodation. According to YouGov 17 per cent of the British public would accommodate a refugee in their home, but at present they can only apply if they can name a refugee who they want to bring over, which will limit offers.

In early March Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, promised that “a couple of hundred thousand” Ukrainian refugees would be resettled in Britain — up from the equally suspiciously round number of 100,000 quoted by Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, a day before. Home Office insiders are sceptical about these figures.

“That 200,000 number is not quality-assured, it wasn’t worked out through any kind of stringent methodology,” says one official. “It’s not a proper projection.”

The number was simply calculated by counting the number of Ukrainians in the UK and working out the total if each one brought five people over, I hear from within the department. “It’s a guess,” the official says.

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The Home Office, somehow unprepared for a crisis that British intelligence agencies had been loudly predicting for weeks, initially only had two routes available for those fleeing Ukraine: a fruit-picking visa or family reunification visa limited to close relatives only — excluding children over 18 and elderly parents, for example. And they could only apply at visa centres outside of Ukraine.

Under pressure from Tory MPs and public opinion, Patel spun and inched her way through concessions — repeatedly insisting on the need for refugees to go through in-person biometric tests and security checks. Now, Ukrainians can apply online instead, but only if they have relatives to join. The EU, in contrast, promptly allowed Ukrainians in visa-free for three years. About 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine, mostly to EU countries, with more than half of them going to Poland. Just 4,000 visas have been granted to the UK.

There was further confusion when Patel mentioned a new “humanitarian route” to allow all Ukrainians in, but this turned out to be a reference to the sponsorship scheme that had already been announced. More confusingly still, a “bespoke visa application centre” that she said was “en route to Calais” never appeared. It was instead reported to be based 70 miles away in Lille, which opened for just one day before moving another 30 miles from Lille, to Arras. Refugees turning up at Calais were instead given a Kitkat and instructions to travel to Paris or Brussels to get the necessary documentation.

While other aspects of the UK’s response to the Russian invasion have been praised, the Home Office has widely been regarded as an embarrassment. While Boris Johnson claimed that the UK was being “generous”, footage emerged of families queuing for hours in temperatures of -3˚C and heavy snow outside a UK visa centre in Poland, which wouldn’t open its doors.

A Tory MP and former Home Office minister says the department must act more creatively in crises, admitting that it is “not the most likely to think outside the box”. They say that it takes “imaginative ministers” to lead the Home Office, which was famously deemed “not fit for purpose” when the New Labour home secretary John Reid took over in 2006.

Yet Priti Patel is the “hokey cokey” Home Secretary. She can’t let them in, and she can’t keep them out: the main two complaints about her from government insiders and Conservatives exasperated by her lack of grip on a basketcase of a department. Before Russia invaded Ukraine the right-wing press was condemning her failure to stop record numbers of migrants crossing the Channel in dinghies (last summer, the Mail on Sunday labelled her the “Minister for Hot Air”).

In cabinet meetings Johnson is prone to raising his eyebrows and exchanging incredulous half-glances with other ministers across the table when Patel is speaking. While she is ultra-loyal to the Prime Minister, she does not have natural allies even among fellow Brexiteers in cabinet.

While civil servants privately decry her lack of aptitude, insiders say that she keeps her place at the cabinet table because she plays to the anti-immigration voter base. “She’s a state-educated Asian woman who appeals to old white men on immigration — she’s the perfect Tory minister,” as one political spinner once put it to me.

Her heritage as the daughter of Ugandan Indians who migrated to the UK is clearly not lost on the Prime Minister. “This is a government unlike any other. The Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Home Secretary are directly descended from refugees,” Johnson boasted in Prime Minister’s Questions last week.

Patel’s unashamedly hardline stance on migration is even harder in private, according to those in the know. “She is a useful battering ram,” says one source party to the cabinet dynamic. “It’s useful to get her to stand up in Parliament and say: ‘Here is this borderline racist policy.’”

Little wonder, then, that responsibility for the refugee sponsorship scheme was soon quietly handed over to Michael Gove. He is known as the go-to minister for cleaning up colleagues’ mess, and pushing through sticky policy, and his role in creating, promoting and announcing the sponsorship scheme is a humiliation for Patel. (The Home Office rejects this interpretation of events, saying it would always have been the responsibility of Gove’s department. While the local government department was involved in a similar scheme for Syrians in 2016, it was launched by Amber Rudd, the home secretary at the time.)

The former MP Richard Harrington, who first entered government in 2015 as minister for Syrian refugees, has been quickly ennobled and appointed minister for refugees and will report to both Gove and Patel’s departments. Yet this, too, has been a “confusing” change, according to a Home Office official. After all, Gove bungled the numbers himself during an interview as he was launching the sponsorship programme — saying 300,000 visas had been issued to Ukrainians before backtracking (it was in fact about 3,000).

Amid all this confusion, the thousands of people who want to host refugees await their instructions. Esther Dudley and her fellow parishioners will meet over coffee, cream buns and Victoria sponge in a village hall this week to discuss the new scheme and try to work out how to help. “I’ve felt sad and ashamed of how those people have been treated by our government,” she says.

A Home Office spokesperson said:

“Valid passport holders no longer have to attend in-person appointments to submit fingerprints or facial verification, and we have also expanded capacity at our Visa Application Centres to 13,000 appointments per week across Europe to help those without their documentation.

“This week, the government’s sponsorship route will open to allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK to come here and we will continue to work closely with our Ukrainian partners to deliver the measures we have put in place.”

Update, 15/3/22:

This article was updated with a statement from the Home Office, and to reflect the fact that the Lille visa centre opened for a day before it was relocated.

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This article appears in the 16 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s War Goes Global