Poles have welcomed 1.2 million Ukrainians fleeing the carnage across the border. Moldova has accepted 83,000, equivalent to 3 per cent of its population. Faced with Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis in a century, the EU has triggered an emergency plan to allow Ukrainians to live and work in the bloc for three years. The UK, meanwhile, has managed to issue just 500 visas to Ukrainian nationals. Refugees who managed against the odds to reach Calais in the hope of crossing the Channel have been turned back by border officials for not having the right paperwork. Unfortunately the UK attitude is entirely consistent with its overarching migration and asylum policy, and with a confused Home Office.
The UK is offering two schemes for Ukrainians: the first allows entry to relatives of Ukrainians already resident in Britain. The Home Office, under cross-party pressure, widened its definition of close relatives days after its first paltry offer.
The second programme permits charities and individuals to sponsor Ukrainians, even with no family ties, but rules as to how the scheme will work in practice are yet to be published. A similar sponsorship system set up for Syrian refugees was so complicated that few managed to navigate it successfully. The sponsor scheme would allow Ukrainians to remain in the UK for up to 12 months, whereas the family scheme allows three years. Both should be in lockstep with the EU’s three-year period.
As well as the miserliness of the UK’s scheme, confusion as to how to access it has reigned among Britain’s most senior ministers, who have openly contradicted each other. Priti Patel, the home secretary, said staff were in Calais processing visas for Ukrainians when they were not. Families who have travelled at least 1,000 miles under appalling conditions to reach Calais have been told their visas can only be processed in the nearest offices of Paris or Brussels. Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, confirmed that the Ministry of Defence will be drafted in to help operations; never a ringing endorsement.
An office will now be set up 70 miles from Calais, in Lille, as Patel alleged that having one in Calais — the main port of entry to the UK — posed too much of a security risk, even though the vast majority of Ukrainian refugees are women and children, men under 60 being conscripted to fight.
If Ukrainians do manage to locate visa centres, they are met with the worst of civil-service bureaucracy: the Brussels office is reportedly only open for three days a week on reduced hours, while the Paris office is limited to offering 400 appointments, only 100 of which are reserved for Ukrainians. Even the lucky few with appointments have been told to upload official documents — should they have remembered to bring them from their bombed-out homes — with translations into English. Fast-track arrangements to streamline such officialdom need to be set up, urgently.
Indifference to refugees’ plight and bureaucratic complexity is not unique to this case. It was evident in the UK’s response to Afghans fleeing from the Taliban last year. A nationality and borders bill has been criticised by the United Nations for undermining established refugee rights. The Windrush scandal showed how harsh the Home Office could be even to UK residents. Arguably, making asylum as difficult as possible is exactly what the Home Office under Patel — who is herself a child of migrants — has strived to achieve. It is just that it has taken a war on Europe’s doorstep to expose the government’s deliberate callousness towards the most desperate.