Who could not be moved by the scenes of Ukrainian refugees arriving in Europe, being welcomed with open arms and offered refuge in family homes? Many had driven half way across the continent to offer a home, and transport to it. Should any UK citizen consider crossing the channel and responding in this way, they face imprisonment.
The first and second visa concessions
On 27 February, I wrote that the visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees was a ‘sham’ and that it offered no more than what any citizen from any other country was entitled to, except the visa application fees were to be waived.
Following widespread condemnation, the government agreed to expand the scheme and I wrote further about this on 2 March. In this ‘concession’, the government was not offering an expansion of the family route to include parents of a Ukrainian spouse or the adult children of either parents, but a slightly easier process and less rigorous hurdles to pass through for immediate family members. It also said it would offer a sponsorship route in due course.
I wrote then that the only refugee option to enter the UK for someone who was not a close relative of a UK citizen or their Ukrainian spouse, was via a small boat crossing the channel.
The third visa concessions fall far short of what is needed
After more pressure, the government issued revised guidance on 4 March.
This guidance states that the extended families of UK citizens, Ukrainian nationals married to UK nationals or Ukrainian citizens with settled status can apply to join families in the UK.
This is one step further forward, but it still does not include the families of Ukraine citizens living and working in the UK who do not have settled status. Those who came into the country as temporary workers or who are on a student visa or even came here on holiday can stay by having their visas extended or changed, but their families cannot join them here, even while the war is ongoing.
The number of Ukraine nationals working in the UK on temporary visas is unclear but according to Staffing Industry Analysts, 45 percent of temporary UK visa applications are from Ukrainians and in 2021 there were nearly 20,000 applications. In other words, there are likely to be several thousand Ukrainian nationals in the UK who can neither leave nor have their families join them for the duration of the war.
I doubt the UK will prohibit Ukrainian nationals in the UK joining their families in another more generous European country, but these arrangements should be more open and reciprocal.
Level of need
According to the United Nations (UN), there are, just now, about 505,000 Ukrainians in Poland. Some 139,000 have gone to Hungary, 97,000 to Moldova, 51,000 to Romania, 72,000 to Slovakia and 48,000 to Russia. Over 90,000 have already moved onto other European countries and a handful to the UK; this exodus will continue.
The UN estimates that about one million people have fled and there may be another two million who will follow, particularly those who are internally displaced in the west of the country.
Moldova a tiny, poor country with a population of about 2.6 million, is caring for one refugee for every 27 of its citizens. Meanwhile the UK, a large rich country, is refusing to accommodate more than one for 660 residents (assuming 100,000 come to the UK). Already Moldova is unable to cope with the demand, in spite of its big heart and willingness to do so.
The UK punishes those who help refugees
Across Europe, we have seen the waiting cars and people who have travelled hundreds of miles to offer a welcome and a room to refugees crossing the border or at railway stations.
There is no doubt that UK citizens would be equally generous and would travel thousands of miles to do so, if able. But, if UK residents were to do this, they could face up to ten years in jail (or a life sentence if the nationality and borders bill becomes law) for assisting entry into the UK for someone without a visa.
The government has previously (and would do so again had it not be declared “a flawed view of the law” on appeal) insisted on the prosecution of refugees who have steered small boats across the channel and many were sentenced to imprisonment, of between two and four years, before their successful appeals.
So, there is no doubt that the government would bring down the full force of the law against any person providing room, refuge, or transport into the UK, to someone without Home Office approval for entry.
Should we open our borders in the way other European countries have done, we are unlikely to be a high demand country compared to Germany and Poland. We are not in the EU and so capacity to move and work freely is constrained. We are linguistically and culturally less close and we are too far away from the homeland for those who want to remain close, or return as soon as they can.
We need a step change in the government’s offer. At the very least, it should include the families of all of those currently in the UK, with settled status or without, but, preferably, we should allow all those who wish to come to do so. This daily round of parsing minute concessions to analyse their substance and hold the government to account only reveals how little the government cares for those fleeing Ukraine.