The Ukraine crisis proves the British public’s willingness to help refugees – if only Boris would listen

Are refugees welcome in the UK? It depends on whether you ask our government or our people.

This government deliberately blurs the line between “economic migrants” and “genuine refugees” in order to reject both with the same hand. It has now announced a new program by which even legitimate refugees, whose claims of asylum are accepted to be valid, will be sent to Rwanda with no hope of return. It may make passing reference to supporting asylum in specific and limited circumstances, but its actions have been to throttle the remaining routes for refugees who seek to come here.

But if you look at the collective response of thousands upon thousands of families across this country to the crisis created by Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, it rather belies that cruel and close-minded approach taken by Boris Johnson and Priti Patel. The people of the UK welcome refugees – if only our government would get out of the way. That is why we need to come together to show our support for the Refugees Welcome campaign.

It has become a repeated truism from the government that our asylum system is broken. They are not entirely wrong. The problem, however, is that a large part of why it is broken is because of this government, and the distorted incentives it has to seek ever more cruel and impractical press-ready policies against refugees.

When Priti Patel became home secretary in July 2019, 22,000 people had been waiting for more than six months for a decision on their asylum application. That number is now more than 60,000. This is not something that can be blamed on the pandemic – the numbers were already rising before Covid hit. It is an elementary yardstick of Home Office effectiveness and it is not being met.

Between failure on the basic remit of the job, ridiculous and immoral proposals to push people in dinghies back across the Channel with wave machines, and most recently the bungled response to refugees from Ukraine, you are left with the impression of a Home Office in dire need of a reboot.

The latest policy flailing over Rwanda only reinforces the impression that ministers are more interested in putting out crazed ideas for newspaper headlines than in making a workable system for refugees. For all their claims that this new policy announcement is long-planned and has nothing to do with distraction from the prime minister’s Partygate ends, the fallout since Thursday tells another tale.

The refugee minister, Lord Harrington, himself was blindsided by the policy, saying there was “no possibility” of it happening just days before it was announced. Home Office staff were said to be shocked and demoralized when the announcement came out.

Worse still, Ms Patel overruled top civil servants in the Home Office with “ministerial direction” – that is, giving a direct order to follow the planned policy – ​​because officials see it as so poorly judged on practical grounds, if nothing else. If even Home Office staff – hardly known for their soft-hearted liberalism – think you have gone off the rails, then you know there is a serious problem.

It now appears that no proper clearing work was done to ensure that the policy was legal. At best this indicates incompetence. At worst it suggests the prime minister – having been found to have personally broken the law – is now looking to reaffirm his credentials from him by seemingly seeking legal conflict over the issue.

It turns out that if you let a crook off the hook, he is only likely to keep breaking the law. The issue, as ever, is that there is a lot of incentive for this flailing government to look for flashy announcements, lawful or unlawful, and very little incentive to take boring but meaningful action.

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After all, Priti Patel has been making these announcements like clockwork since she became home secretary. Plenty of madcap schemes – with little benefit to show for them. Channel crossings have only increased, while the profits of human traffickers have soared. We fill smugglers’ pockets with our government’s short-term, press-hungry policies.

Boris Johnson and Priti Patel have convinced themselves that the public is as narrow-minded and closed-off as they are – that even utterly impractical and costly refugee policies can be justified precisely because they are cruel, rather than in spite of it.

It is the task of all of us to prove that they are wrong and that even in the face of an incompetent government, refugees are welcome in this country, as they always have been.

Alistair Carmichael is the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on home affairs, Northern Ireland and constitutional reform — and the party’s MP for Orkney and Shetland

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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