The Ukrainian refugee situation, and its coverage in the media, has opened a window on our government’s hostile, negligent, and appalling treatment of people seeking sanctuary.
We demand a change in our laws, and an end to our practice of punishing the displaced rather than welcoming them.
Millions of people across Ukraine have been displaced from their homes by the Russian invasion, and their desperate situation has led to an outpouring of sympathy, practical support and generous offers of accommodation, from people across the world – including here in the UK.
This compassionate reaction from so many ordinary people is very moving and an encouraging sign of the depth of feeling behind the slogan “refugees welcome”; that such kindness is being frustrated by the Home Office’s visa bureaucracy is outrageous and a cause for collective shame.
While official rhetoric remains fairly warm (at least for the moment), the reality on the ground is often very cold. We have been deeply disturbed by recent reports of Ukrainian refugee families being split, and others made homeless within days of arriving, due to problems with the sponsorship programme, while Ukrainians who arrive without visas are being thrown into our cruel and unfit asylum system and subject to quasi-detention in so-called “asylum hotels”.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian seasonal workers (not included in any scheme) have been left at risk of destitution and exploitation, with no recourse to public funds and no right to bring their children and other family members to safety, even as the government pays lip service to ‘homes for Ukrainians’. That the Home Office should wave their country’s flag, while treating them in this manner, is an utter scandal.
At this point, it should be morally obvious that war refugees are entitled to our protection regardless of how they came to be here and whether or not they know anyone willing or able to sponsor them. All those who cannot go home have a right to be safe: whether they arrived seeking sanctuary or as visitors, workers or students.
As visa delays cause mounting outrage, the very least the government can do is to follow the lead of other European countries and waive visa requirements immediately. It should grant permanent Refugee Status to all Ukrainian nationals who are in the UK, create safe pathways for undocumented Ukrainians to obtain refugee status, and facilitate family reunions including from third countries. This much, we hope, is now clear.
But we think our government can – and should – do more.
On the eve of Priti Patel’s Nationality and Borders Bill becoming law, we call on the government, and more importantly, the UK public who have opened their hearts to Ukraine – to consider the families and single people (often unaccompanied children) who have been forced to leave their homes in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Yemen and many other places to look for temporary or more permanent homes elsewhere – and open their hearts to them too.
Some of the reporting of this war, as well as the appalling and distressing scenes of Black people mistreated at the Ukrainian border, has illustrated how ethnicity and nationality remain a barrier to welcome. At the Polish-Belarusian border, refugees from Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere were left for months in harsh winter weather without protection or basic necessities. Away from the cameras, tragically, many perished. Even now in Ukraine itself, after five weeks of war, migrants and refugees remain trapped in EU-funded detention centres. With no air raid shelters and no way of escaping the bombs, their terror can only be imagined.
Closer to home, in Calais, non-European refugees are still living in tents, hounded by police, and denied even the rudimentary and inadequate support provided to their Ukrainian counterparts. These include many young people yearning to reunite with family in Britain. With no hope of obtaining a visa, and no way of claiming asylum until they arrive, many more will be forced to resort to terrifying channel crossings in unseaworthy vessels. Who are we, as a country, that we let this happen on our doorstep?
We are calling on the government to reverse its draconian and unworkable laws which, far from welcoming the displaced, lock them into years of torturous waiting. This traumatic uncertainty is the reality for so many refugees and asylum seekers even inside the UK: denied the opportunity to work, unable to settle, forced to live well below the poverty line, threatened with indefinite detention and the ever-present fear of deportation.
This inhumanity is being exercised in our name by our government on tens of thousands of people from across the world who came here for the same reason that Ukrainians are forced to come. These people want no more than to rebuild their lives in peace and security. Their stories of suffering are too often ignored. And when they do appear in the headlines, they are scapegoated and demonised.
At OAID we want to live in a compassionate country, not a Hostile Environment.
We welcomed the closure of Campsfield, after 25 years too long – but last year we marked the opening of a new all-women detention centre near Durham with heavy hearts. OAID exists to expose and resist the imprisonment of refugees and migrants (and the attitudes behind it), here in Britain and across the world.
We will not rest until all the detention centres are closed, our racist immigration laws are repealed, and the moral stain of detention without trial or time limit is removed from our lawbook.
We believe that people can be (and frequently are) much better than their governments, and we will work collectively to change the attitude and policy of this and subsequent governments to one of true humanity and social justice, through opening people’s eyes to the reality of our heartless border regime.
Please share this statement. Thank you.
Liz Peretz and Emma Jones (Co-Chairs)