Commentary on Political Economy

Monday, 7 March 2022


Ukrainian refugees, meet Britain’s ‘hostile environment’. We should be ashamed

Simon Jenkins

You could hardly imagine a frostier welcome for these desperate people. The comparison with Europe tells you everything

Anti-war demonstrators outside the Houses of Parliament yesterday.

One and a half million desperate Ukrainian refugees. Fifty British visas. It beggars belief.

In time of war we should keep emotional responses in proportion, but sometimes the hypocrisy is intolerable. Boris Johnson is frantically – and blatantly – traipsing his Churchill act through the capitals of Europe. He hurls abuse at Vladimir Putin and promises Ukraine guns and missiles, aid and sanctions, persecution of oligarchs, anything short of soldiers. But when asked to do the one concrete thing that might directly relieve that country’s agony, he reverts to type. For god’s sake keep these Ukrainians away from our shores. Remember the ark of the Brexit covenant.

Across Europe, EU countries have thrown open their doors. Thousands of families have literally done so. There are no border guards, wire fences, sheafs of documents and demands for proof of identity and health. These people are frantic. They could soon be spreading out across Europe. Obviously most will be temporary and most will want to stay within reach of their homes. But that still leaves tens of thousands begging for refuge farther west, many in England as they speak the language.

When the surge began Johnson won headlines by promising to let in 200,000 “eligible” Ukrainians. It turned out that “eligible” meant only those with direct, immediate relatives, though even this didn’t include the parents of anyone over 18. Only after an eruption in the House of Commons did Johnson make what he presented as a grand concession, to include grandparents. By the weekend it emerged that of 5,535 laboriously completed online applications, just 50 had been granted. More than 1,000 have already entered the much smaller Republic of Ireland. It is obscene.

The factory of excuses has been working overtime. There is talk of Ukrainians “not really wanting to be permanently settled here” and of the need to submit them to official security clearance and biometric data checking. One hundred and fifty of 400 refugees who had made it to Calais were reportedly told by British officials to go to Paris or Brussels to try for visas there. Ukrainians without families in Britain could only get in if they found someone to sponsor them. Details of what this means are still being “worked up at pace and will be communicated in due course”. We can only assume that Priti Patel’s officials are still operating under Theresa May’s “hostile environment” policy towards immigrants. She and they are oblivious of the crisis in common humanity now looming over Europe.

A frostier welcome to Britain could hardly be imagined. There is no hint that Ukrainians should have unrestricted right of entry as they flee the Russian invasion, as elsewhere in Europe for the past horrific week. Johnson presumably believes it is not what the British public want. I can hear him saying, they voted for Brexit, didn’t they?

It is hard not to see Johnson’s electoral calculus beneath all this. The obsession with halting migration has entered the Home Office soul, a department now institutionally xenophobic. The result is shameful. When today’s Britons are asked by their grandchildren what they did in the great Ukrainian war, they will have to reply that, thanks to Johnson, “at least we kept the foreigners out”.

  • Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

No comments:

Post a Comment