As the tanks roll into Ukraine and towns and cities are bombarded by missiles, millions of people are fleeing the country in search of safety. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees has described the refugee crisis as one of the worse in Europe since the end of the second world war.
In a time of humanitarian disaster, Britain should be welcoming refugees with open arms. Yet, the response so far has been to place a barrier of bureaucracy in their way. The government’s actions, and more specifically the Home Office’s actions under the Home Secretary Priti Patel, are a national disgrace.
At the time of writing, the UK has accepted less than 5000 refugees. For comparison, Poland has accepted 1.3 million refugees, Hungary 200,000 and Slovakia 150,000. Many more European countries have welcomed tens of thousands of refugees.
Initially, the government’s policy was to turn away refugees at the Calais border for not having the correct documentation. Perhaps the Home Office should have realised that one of the reasons they do not have all the correct documentation is because the homes of many refugees have been destroyed, along with much of their documentation.
Some refugees were have been redirected to offices in Paris and Brussels, which are both over a hundred miles away from Calais. If refugees reach these offices, they will face further hurdles. The Financial Times reported that the Brussels office is open for a limited number of days and hours, while the Paris office only has 400 appointments to give. At a time of crisis, refugees are facing bureaucracy and cruelty.
Unfortunately, this is not a new set of circumstances. Successive Conservative governments have consistently treated those seeking to enter the UK, whether that be refugees, asylum seekers or migrants, with contempt.
The government had an inadequate response to refugees fleeing from the Taliban in Afghanistan last year. The resettlement scheme took over four months to be established completely, which forced many refugees to make dangerous journeys, some of which resulted in the loss of life.
In the Windrush scandal, at least 83 people from Caribbean countries were wrongly deported as part of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy (which was later found by the Equality and Human Rights Commission to have broken the equalities law).
Clearly, there is a pattern of contempt.
Fortunately, some progress is being made to allow Ukrainian refugees into the UK, albeit at a slow pace. People living in the UK will be able to open their homes to Ukrainian families through the Homes for Ukraine website. Through this, refugees will be able to settle for three years and will have access to work and public services.
Despite this being good progress, it must be acknowledged that the scheme took too long to emerge. At the same time that Poland had admitted over a million refugees, the UK had only distributed fifty visas. For comparison, more people were invited to a Downing Street “bring your own booze” party in 2020 than the number of refugees the UK had accepted at the time.
The government anticipated a war in Ukraine, therefore they should have been prepared for a refugee crisis. A failure to prepare is either due to incompetence or indifference.
In response to such criticism, Conservative minister Michael Gove, speaking in the Commons, said “can we just chuck it on the partisan nonsense and get on with delivering”. Of course, most people would want the acceptance of refugees to be a bipartisan issue. However, the government has failed in its response to the refugee crisis. To attack those that criticise the government’s woeful response is to avoid accountability for presiding over an inhumane refugee policy.
When people flee conflict, whether it be in Ukraine, Yemen or Syria, it is the duty of nations that are capable of providing them with safety to do so. If every country passed the responsibility to another country, then no state would take responsibility for refugees. In a time of humanitarian crisis, the UK should be leading by example. After all, doesn’t the Prime Minister continuously talk about “global Britain”?
The facade of “global Britain” is crumbling. The government’s response to the refugee crisis demonstrates that it is taking a step back from international responsibility. If the government truly wants to achieve a “global Britain” then the first step should be to show compassion to those fleeing conflict. The response should not be to close the door or to demand a litany of documentation that many do not have.
If the government does not pursue a more welcoming and less bureaucratic approach to refugees then they will bring shame to a nation that is willing to give help to the most vulnerable. After all, the Homes for Ukraine scheme is reflective of a compassionate nation, one which welcomes refugees fleeing conflict, despite their government’s dismal record. Therefore, the initial poor reaction to the refugee crisis is not representative of our nation. It is representative of an indifferent and incompetent government.
For those that remain sceptical about taking a different approach to refugees, it is worth remembering these words attributed to Tony Benn: “The way a government treats refugees is very instructive because it shows you how they would treat the rest of us if they thought they could get away with it”.
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