Is the UK a safe haven for Ukrainian refugees?

Anti-terrorist operation in eastern Ukraine by Ministry of Defense of Ukraine on Flikr

UK Homes for Ukraine scheme

Reacting to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, several of my friends in England have offered Ukrainian refugees shelter in their homes. The government has set up a ‘Homes for Ukraine’ page for people interested in becoming a sponsor for a Ukrainian refugee. But the path from opening your home to help Ukrainians fleeing war, to actually receiving a refugee, is not simple or fast. The UK has not joined the EU in offering Ukrainians visa-free temporary protection and rights.

The EU Temporary Protection Directive 

Since we are not members of the EU any longer, the special EU Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) triggered after the Russian invasion of Ukraine does not apply to us. After the Balkan crisis over 20 years ago, the TPD was a plan on how to deal with a sudden surge of refugees into Europe. Individual assessments are impossible when daily influx reaches the 100,000s, like Poland, Hungary and Moldova experienced in February to April this year.

In March, the EU Council signed off a special TPD allowing Ukrainian refugees to go to any of the 27 member states and enjoy the same rights as natives of the host country for three years. The directive applied not just to Ukrainians but also to third country nationals residing in Ukraine as asylum seekers. This was a U-turn, especially for Poland, who were pushing back Iraqi and Afghan refugees trying to enter from Belarus. Refugees are now entitled to access to health, education, welfare benefits and an immediate right to work. This leads to a degree of shared responsibility.

The UK – a world-leading safe haven for refugees?

In a meeting chaired by Irina von Wiese, a former LibDem MEP, of the Roundtable forum formed by chairs of Grassroots for Europe groups, we asked if the UK was a world-leading safe haven for Ukrainian refugees. We posed this question to Dr Ruvi Ziegler, associate professor in international refugee law at the University of Reading school of law. Dr Ziegler set out the differing approaches to the Ukraine refugee crisis of the UK and the EU. He also explained that the TPD triggered for Ukraine was not activated during crises like Syria and Libya as there was not the political will for it among EU member states and activation required a qualified majority.

No visa waiver by UK

Dr Ziegler told us that UK government could have waived its visa requirement for Ukrainian refugees. That would have speeded up processing applications, especially as a mass influx into the UK was unlikely given the EU’s generous response. Indeed, the number of Ukrainians applying to come to the UK is below the number of UK citizens offering to help under the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme. Yet the UK decided not to waive the visa requirements. They also refused to give Ukrainians the immediate right to work, as based on refugee status. This was maybe because the government has pushed through the Nationality and Borders Act, refusing to accept the Lords amendments that would have allowed asylum seekers to work after six months in the UK.

Safe and legal routes?

The UK does not like to process claims online from abroad, demanding that asylum seekers use “safe and legal routes” to enter the UK. However, there are no such routes, forcing some refugees to come across the channel irregularly or illegally risking their lives and using people smugglers. The question arises if Ukrainian refugees can apply from abroad, why Afghans and others could not do so. 

Right to return a refugee to the EU country of first asylum (Dublin Agreement)

As members of the EU, according to the Dublin agreement, the UK could return refugees coming from Calais to France. That was because this EU agreement gave Dublin the responsibility for handling an asylum seeker’s application to the first EU country they enter. According to the new TPD, the EU has encouraged Ukrainians to move beyond the first country entered. The UK is no longer covered by the Dublin agreement since Brexit and hence struggles to pass back the responsibility for processing asylum seekers arriving in Britain from the EU. 

Rwanda deportation

That might explain the shameful new arrangement of the Rwanda policy. This came into effect on 14 April and outsources the processing of asylum claims from the UK to the East African country. It is retrospective, meaning that anyone who has arrived irregularly in the UK since 1 January, 2022 may be deported under the agreement.

Regressing in treatment of refugees

Dr Ziegler explained that deporting (or according to the government “relocating”) asylum seekers to Rwanda puts LGBTQ asylum seekers’ life and liberty in danger. Additionally, the UK’s plan to replace the Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights will diverge from the European Convention on Human Rights. This may lead to the UK Government unable to negotiate a Dublin-like arrangement with European countries. Who would want to sign an agreement with a country that breaches international human rights law? 

Dr Ziegler concluded with an overall observation:

“The UK does seem to be world-leading in one sense – it is rare to find a country that is regressing so dramatically in its treatment of refugees and asylum.”

Different treatments of refugees 

I’ve read several social media threads which accused Europe of a racist policy of giving white European Ukrainian refugees privileges they had denied people fleeing war in Africa and the Middle East. It is a very uncomfortable question why there was no political will amongst EU countries to give all refugees the TPD.

However, the UK goes a step further. The visa system clearly puts paperwork before people. It is less about showing compassion and more about the British government’s ingrained desire to “control its borders” regardless of the refugee situation.

UK Refugee Council views

The next speaker at the Roundtable meeting, Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, spoke about the impact of differential treatment of refugees by the UK. He gave the perspective from frontline refugee work in the UK. 

Ukrainian refugees can go to 27 countries, like Germany, Ireland, Italy, France, or Spain. Germany has a special scheme to get people into work as quickly as possible. They are welcomed, supported by a host and offered a place to live. In contrast, to get to the UK, refugees have to complete a 40-page form online, upload documents for translating. They must go on to some Facebook DIY scheme to find a host. Some Ukrainians have given up trying to get into the UK and British who want to welcome them into their homes feel ‘stitched up’. 

Impact of the Nationalities and Borders Act 

Enver Solomon told us that 100,000 asylum seekers have been waiting more than six months, with nearly 70,000 waiting over a year, for their asylum application to be decided. 

“The average time to receive a decision on an asylum claim in the UK is over 12 months. The Act will increase delays in the system because of the inadmissibility rules that replaced the Dublin Agreement in January 2021. People will now have to wait to be told whether they have been deemed inadmissible and will be removed. These rules enable the government to send people to Rwanda, for example.”

Refugees sent to Rwanda will no longer be under the jurisdiction of the UK asylum system, abandoning people needing protection, ignoring UK responsibility under the UN Convention on Refugees. 

“Applications for asylum in the UK could be made through joint processing arrangements with other parts of Europe and hotspots around the World. Creating humanitarian pathways to the UK, and a fair, orderly functioning asylum system would act as a far greater deterrent.“

Enver Solomon concludes that in over-promising and under-delivering, the UK government cannot keep its promise to “take back control” of its borders.

In the Q&A session of the Roundtable meeting we heard that there is a real danger of a repeat of the Windrush scandal scenario with EU and other refugees or migrants. This government is all about promoting a “hostile environment.”

Want to get involved?

The Roundtable speakers recommend https://togetherwithrefugees.org.uk. This coalition brings together all major campaign groups. 

If you want to know more about the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme the Home Owners Alliance explains.

Join https://www.europeanmovement.co.uk and https://grassrootsforeurope.org if you want to take part in actions for closer European cooperation.