According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, there may be millions of Ukrainians seeking safety from the Russian military invasion. Their latest estimate is that as many as 5 million people will flee for safety. Behind these statistics are the dreadful pictures we are seeing on television and social media, people escaping war with their belongings in suitcases. And all this so soon after the Taliban takeover and the flight of thousands of Afghans.
But how should the UK government respond to the refugee crisis in Ukraine? As I write, the Polish government has said that 100,000 refugees have entered the country. There are also reports that refugees have been arriving in Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, and Moldova.
Whatever we do, we must act jointly with other European countries and share responsibility with them. The urgent need is to help the adjacent countries, with emergency accommodation, food, and medical supplies. These should be sent immediately.
Then we must provide opportunities for Ukrainians to resettle in this country. Again, this must be a shared responsibility with other European countries and maybe also with the US and Canada. Our first step should be to welcome Ukrainians who already have families here, especially if they can provide accommodation. Then, we should look sympathetically at those who have other links to this country, perhaps having studied or worked here. All these people should be helped quickly. We should of course also take our share of responsibility for some of the Ukrainians who do not have families here.
In addition to the offers of sanctuary from Ukraine’s neighbours, there have been offers to accept Ukrainians from Ireland and from Portugal. So far, the British response has been a deadening silence. We cannot publicly say we’re doing everything we can to help Ukraine but then turn our backs on those fleeing.
From Monday onwards the Lords will debate and vote on various amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill. As the bill stands there are no safe routes to the UK for Ukrainians and many other refugees. With no flights out of Ukraine, any refugee would have to cross a “safe” country which, as the current proposed legislation stands, would mean that they wouldn’t qualify for asylum here. Is the British government seriously going to say that Ukrainians seeking safety here ought to go back to Poland or Hungary? It’s nonsense and we must hope that the Lords will remove these and other provisions in the bill that run counter to the 1951 Geneva Convention on refugees.
For all the fine words at the time of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, many Afghans are still trapped in their country. The British government wants biometric data from them before admitting them here, even assuming they can get out of the country. Biometric data is not obtainable in Afghanistan. Will the Home Office now make similar – largely impossible demands of Ukrainians?
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We must follow the Irish and Portuguese examples and accept Ukrainian victims without visa or biometric restrictions being required. It is entirely unrealistic to expect people to complete a detailed application process as they flee a war.
Finally, the lesson as regards refugees is clear. All European countries should have an agreed policy on refugees. That means not saying refugees should claim asylum “elsewhere”. We should support those countries whose geographical position means they will receive larger numbers in the first instance, and play a willing role in accepting our share of the refugees leaving Ukraine.
The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the UK government to set up a resettlement scheme to give Ukrainians fleeing the invasion sanctuary in Britain.
Lord Alf Dubs is a refugee campaigner who sits in the House of Lords
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.