Following on from the passing of the Nationality and Borders Act and the announcement of the government scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda, a group of non-governmental organisations (NGOs), refugee and asylum experts met together on 10 May, under the aegis of Grassroots for Europe, to discuss the different approaches between the EU and the UK in respect of Ukrainian refugees. They also considered the implications of this for the future, as refugee organisations continue to challenge the government’s hostile environment.
The meeting was addressed by Ruvi Ziegler, associate professor in international refugee law at the University of Reading and chair of New Europeans UK, and Enver Solomon CEO of the Refugee Council. It was chaired by Irina von Weise, a human rights lawyer, and former chair of the European human rights sub-committee.
The EU’s response to displacement from Ukraine
Dr Ziegler drew a critical distinction between Ukrainians and other refugees – Syrians, Iraqis, Afghans, Eritreans, or other nationals on the top ten refugee-producing countries globally. Ukrainians enjoy visa-free access to and within EU member states for up to 90 days in each 180-day period and they have been able to freely cross the border into the EU (primarily into Poland) from the start of the war.
Dr Ziegler noted that, over 20 years ago in the aftermath of mass displacement from the Balkans, the EU adopted a temporary protection directive to enable refugees to stay and work in any of the 27 member nations for up to three years, receive social welfare, and access housing, health and education. It had not been activated in response to previous conflicts but, on this occasion the EU acted quickly and with unanimity.
On 4 March 2022, ten days into the conflict, the directive was activated. It applies not just to Ukrainian nationals, but also to asylum seekers from other counties who had resided in Ukraine prior to the Russian invasion, and to family members.
In contrast to the Dublin III arrangements, whereby the first EU country is expected to receive and process asylum claims and asylum seekers can be returned to that country, Ukrainians were encouraged to move freely within the EU to enable “a balance of efforts” between member states.
He highlighted the differential treatment of Ukrainian refugees compared with those arriving in Europe from other continents, noting that the generosity shown on this occasion could be repeated on other occasions or for other refugees.
The UK’s response
Unlike the EU, the UK did not offer visa-free entry for Ukrainians prior to the conflict but could have chosen to do so. Instead, neither of the Ukraine schemes – the family permit scheme and the homes for Ukraine scheme – are asylum mechanisms. Ukrainians coming to the UK ‘irregularly’ will therefore be subject to the new discriminatory arrangements of the Nationality and Borders Act. However, the schemes demonstrate that the UK can allow out-of-country online applications, raising the question as to why such arrangements are not made available to other nationals.
The UK government’s intention, announced in the Queen Speech, is to overhaul the Human Rights Act through the enactment of a bill of rights that diverges from the standards of the European Convention on Human rights. This divergence, coupled with the government’s Rwanda memorandum of understanding (which potentially endangers LGBTIQ+ asylum seekers by sending them to a place that is not safe for them), could make it difficult, if not impossible, for European countries to engage in a future exchange mechanism similar to the Dublin III arrangements with the UK.
The difference between the EU and the UK
Solomon, from the Refugee Council, pointed out the “stark differences” between the UK and the EU. He noted that wherever Ukrainians wanted to go in Europe, they were invited to make their way to and would be welcomed there:
“You don’t have to go online and complete a 40 to 50 page form. You don’t have to upload documents that you have to get translated into English, you don’t have to go on to some kind of Facebook DIY scheme to find someone that will host you. You go, you’re welcomed, you’re assigned a host, a place to live, and you’re supported. And in Germany, they’ve even got a scheme to get people into work as quickly as possible.”
Solomon spoke of the frustration of British hosts who feel “stitched up” and “frustrated and deeply angry” by the Home Office. He pointed out that building barriers into the scheme is likely to seriously restrict the numbers that come to the UK, even though the government has said the scheme is uncapped.
Having spoken to parliamentarians and senior civil servants, Solomon believes that the desire to ‘control the border’ as promised during the Brexit debates is the driving force for all refugee and immigration policies, leading to the prioritisation of control over compassion. The government is closing or denying safe legal routes, and then denying asylum to those who have come to the UK through unsafe routes.
The government has closed safe routes to the UK
Solomon noted that the government intends to restrict further the possibility of safe routes by denying family reunion protection to those who have come to the UK via unsafe routes. This will close the main safe route open to them, and the primary safe route for most refugees who come to the UK (40,000 in the past few years).
There are currently over 100,000 people who have been waiting for their asylum cases to be dealt with for over six months and nearly 70,000 who have been waiting for over a year. The inadmissibility procedures contained in the Nationality and Borders Act will increase delays further. All those seeking asylum are to be screened for ‘inadmissibility’ and an application made for them to be returned to a safe country through which they have travelled or for their suitability to be transported to Rwanda. As all European countries have indicated that they are not prepared to take back asylum seekers who have made it to the UK, this is another layer of bureaucracy.
Solomon argued that the government is abandoning its shared responsibilities for the implementation of the UN Convention on Refugees and urged it to begin a “sensible diplomatic dialogue with the French and the EU about how to tackle what is a European wide issue and I recognise it is a challenging issue too”.
In the following discussion there was a consensus that we all needed to continue to campaign. Public awareness of and support for refugees appears to be growing. Some organisations lean more towards education and campaigning while others more towards campaigning and direct action.
- The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants is hosting a carnival of resistance to the hostile environment on Sunday 19 June.
- The Refugee Council and the Red Cross are raising awareness about the impact of the Rwanda plans on young people’s safety.
- Detention Action and Care for Calais are taking Priti Patel to court over the Rwandan plans and are seeking to raise funds.
- SOAS is supporting immigration detainees.
- Yorkshire Bylines and other Bylines papers run regular features on refugee, asylum and immigration matters.
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