Ukraine is a 3-hour flight from the UK. It is part of Europe. For 30 years it has been establishing itself as an independent democratic State, following the collapse of the Soviet Union. The invasion of the country by a huge Russian military force has shocked the world.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees estimates that around 600,000 people have already crossed the borders into neighbouring Poland, Moldova, Slovakia, Hungary, and Romania. Those numbers increase daily. For the most part, they are women and children. By the time you read this newsletter, those figures will be out of date. The martial law declared in Ukraine deters men of military age from leaving the country. So, there is also separation of families to add to the pain of having to leave home, possessions, culture, and country behind.
Brave journalists have flown into Kyiv to report the events as they unfold. They see and film the destruction of residential areas of cities and towns. Russian untruthfully reports that only military targets are being destroyed. The longer the war continues, more infrastructures will be destroyed. Houses, clean water, gas and electricity, hospitals, fuel for transport of all kinds and food supplies will disappear. Cities and towns will become uninhabitable.
In order to survive, people will need to take refuge in any country which will take them, for as long as they need sanctuary. Moldova, Romania and Slovakia are amongst the poorest economies in Europe, though they have been generous so far. Poland has been the major receiving country. All will need international support since more refugees are on the way.
EU response to the crisis
EU countries have stated that, in the case of Ukrainian refugees, they will set aside their usual visa systems which require people to apply for a permit before entering the country. Ukrainians will be expected to seek permission to remain for a period of up to three years, once they have entered the country. In other words, if they can make it to their destination of choice, by whatever means or route available, their human rights under the Geneva Convention of 1950 and 1961 will be upheld and they will be granted asylum and refugee status for up to 3 years. The response is simple, clear and straightforward.
The UK response
The first announcement came from Boris Johnson. ‘Some Ukrainians fleeing the war will be able to come to the UK to join their close relatives’ he said. The Home Office seemed surprised by the statement, and declared it was a ‘change of policy’. Details would be released in due course. Probably that would only happen after Priti Patel had reminded the PM not to change policies without giving her advance warning.
A later announcement declared that the category of ’close relatives’ would be widened to include parents of those in the UK, grandparents, children over 18, and brothers and sisters of those already resident in this country. It may come as a surprise to discover that the family re-union programme did not already include those family members. That is why the Home Office hastily had to announce an extension of its policy, exclusively for Ukrainian families. According to the PM, this will lead to around 200.000 people being able to apply for visas to come to the UK. That figure has already been headlining in The Telegraph and other papers as a sign of our very generous response to the crisis.
Visas will still need to be obtained by those applying to enter the UK. Priti Patel and other Government ministers say it is a matter of national security to protect against Russian terrorists entering the country. The city of Lviv, near to the Polish border, is chosen as the one place in Ukraine where those wishing to enter the UK and be reunited with their family can make their application. It is also the main route out of Ukraine, and the roads are choked with traffic taking hours to travel a few hundred yards. For those living in eastern Ukraine, where the Russian army is already far across the national boundary, a journey by road to Lviv will be a nightmare of roadblocks, and the difficulty of finding fuel to make the long trip. Trains are full beyond capacity and stations are engulfed with people trying to flee west to neighbouring countries.
However, once in Lviv, and finding the designated office, applicants, including children, must be fingerprinted. They will answer questions and pass security checks, on behalf of the family, including children. Leaving the office, the family must go away until the information has been sent to London and a reply comes from the Home Office, granting or refusing the application. A positive reply is never certain. The city of Lviv is inundated with refugees, and hostels and emergency centres are already full to overflowing. The Home Office expects families to wait while someone in London deals with their application, one amongst many on the desk. If granted, the visa will be for 12 months only. It makes clear that any overstay will result in detention and removal from the UK.
Will 200.000 people use that process? The suggestion is ludicrous, and the figures are plucked from the sky, and take no account of the situation which I have described on the ground. Would you hang around homelessly in Lviv with your family, waiting for a reply which could take days or weeks, with the Russian army closing in on you? Would you not rather continue your journey to the Polish border and find safety as soon as possible? Would you feel that the bureaucratic demands placed upon you and your family by the UK government in a time of extreme anxiety and danger are unreasonable, and lacking in compassion? Would you feel more inclined to go to a country which said, ‘Come now, and we’ll sort things out when you are safely here’?
What of those Ukrainians who do not have close relatives in the UK, but nevertheless may want to find shelter here? The seasonal worker scheme has been proposed, which allows a single person to enter the UK to pick fruit or dig vegetables for a limited period (3 or 4 months) only. That person must produce documents to show that they have been offered employment in the UK. They must return at the end of the visa period or face detention and forced return to their country of origin.
That particular route was offered by Kevin Foster, the Immigration Minister. Clearly, he considers that a person sheltering from the bombs in Kyiv might have time to write round some farms in North Yorkshire and see when the strawberry picking season starts, and if so, are there any jobs going. Of course, they will discover that the fruit picking season in the UK does not start on March 1st when they get a reply from any potential employer. However, if there is a job offer, they can fill in all the necessary forms and return them to the Home Office for validation, and then wait for a visa which can take several months. Still, what else have these Ukrainians to do with their time? Kevin was surprised by the adverse reaction, and withdrew his suggestion. It’s good to have insight into the thinking of our Immigration Minister.
Clearly the public mood is looking to the Government to be more generous than the visa linked family re-union programme. Therefore, the Home Secretary was back at the dispatch box announcing a Humanitarian Sponsorship pathway for Ukrainians. This is in fact an old scheme, formerly known as the Community and Business sponsorship. It was put in place in 2018 for Syrians. It was originally said that the scheme would bring refugees from camps in Jordan and Lebanon, to settle in the UK, with housing, English lessons, back up funding, and resettlement programmes being provided by the sponsoring town, village, church, or business. Business sponsors must offer jobs with an income of at least £26,500p.a.
It was claimed that the route would enable up to 4000 Syrians a year to enter the UK. I have only been involved with one such scheme over the four year period. The paperwork and criteria required by the Home Office meant that it took two years for the family to arrive from a refugee camp into Britain.
Instead of the 4000 a year claimed, the total number is in the low hundreds after four years. It has not been successful. Furthermore, by offering this Humanitarian Sponsorship pathway into the country, the Government is shifting its response to the human crisis from its own shoulders, into the hands of individual communities. That is simply unacceptable.
The Nationality and Borders Bill has just been discussed by the House of Lords and sent back to the Commons with a significant number of amendments. No doubt, these changes will be overruled by the Government, and the Bill will get passed with a majority. Thereafter, anyone coming into the UK by any means other than one designated and approved by the Government, will be classed as having committed a criminal act, their asylum claim will be declared invalid, they will be arrested, and subject to a sentence of up to 4 years imprisonment. Asylum seeking will be criminalised by the Bill, in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention of 1950 and 1961, which the UK helped to draft.
Once the Bill is law, those Ukrainians who have escaped the war will be able to come to the UK only if the Government designs a route for them to enter legally. So far, there is family reunion, Humanitarian Sponsorship, and fruit picking and nothing else in prospect. Compare this with the simple and immediate response from 27 EU countries.
What practical help can be offered?
York City of Sanctuary is being asked if clothing and other personal items are needed at this moment for Ukrainian refugees. We are not aware of any Ukrainian refugee families reaching York or this region of the UK thus far, for the reasons given above.
For the moment, the main concern is providing for those who have crossed over the border into neighbouring countries. The weather is bitterly cold, and shelter, bedding and tarpaulins are the emergency supplies needed right now. A concerted effort is being made by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) with partners, supporting refugees to survive the conditions and find immediate safety. The agency has been working in the Ukraine since 1994 and is familiar with the country and its people.
The most immediate help is by a donation. Go to; https://unrefugees.org.uk/
or call 0800 029 3883
or email [email protected]
You can send a cheque made payable to ‘United Kingdom for UNHCR’’ to the following address; Freepost UK for UNHCR – that’s it. No stamp required.
There may well be other reputable charities that are drawn into partnership as the crisis deepens. You can check the websites of British Red Cross, Save the Children, Medicin sans frontiere, and Oxfam, to see what their plans are for helping in this emergency.
As we receive information of local/ regional developments we will share it with you.
Join us on Saturday 5th March in St Helen’s Square, at 2.30pm.
A gathering to express solidarity for the people of Ukraine, and to seek a further more open handed and compassionate response from the UK Government. Please tell others about this event. It has been called at short notice- but the crisis is now!
Gift Vouchers to Afghan families.
Thanks to the generous donations received from our supporters, we have been able to provide supermarket gift vouchers for families living in hotel accommodation in Selby for the past 7 months. With those, they will be able to select suitable clothes and shoes for their children and themselves as they continue to await resettlement into housing. We hope that moment will not be long delayed. Seven months is a long time for one family to be living in one room in a hotel.
York has recently received 5 Afghan families into the city. On your behalf we offer them welcome, and trust they experience warm hospitality from our city of sanctuary.