The UK government needs to plan for incoming Ukrainian migrants immediately, including creating expedited processes for asylum seekers and developing national integration strategies.
A humanitarian crisis is rapidly unfolding on the Ukrainian border. At the time of writing, the UNHCR has estimated that over a million Ukrainians have fled the country to nearby countries, including Poland and Romania. This will surely increase in the coming weeks and months. Indeed, UNHCR predicts over 4m Ukrainians will leave the country over the course of the conflict.
This will have substantially more impact in Europe than the previous Syrian refugee crisis. While that conflict saw around 6m refugees flee Syria, most of them fled to bordering states, and only a small proportion reached Europe in subsequent waves of migration. This time round, nearly all the anticipated 4m refugees will flee to Europe and over a more acute time frame. It will be much harder for European nations to control this immigration, given there are comparatively few natural barriers and borders blocking the way of Ukrainians.
Thankfully, European countries have been quick to grasp the humanitarian dimension of this conflict. Poland has welcomed Ukrainians – and even their pets – without any paperwork and the EU has agreed to take in Ukrainian refugees for up to three years without asylum. This 180 degree turn from the policies dominating the Syrian crisis was spurred on by the demographic make-up of Ukrainians. As a predominantly white, Christian nation that is part of a European identity, it is easier for governments to gain public and political support for taking in refugees in a way they did not during the Syrian crisis.
Yet, the UK government has been slower to act than their European counterparts. Boris Johnson and his cabinet have continued to address the conflict primarily through economic procedures and military rhetoric. The humanitarian dimension is, to all intents and purposes, an after-thought in the eyes of the Prime Minister. In his first speech addressing the conflict, he announced “a massive package of economic sanctions” to end Vladimir Putin’s military aims. Only in the final moments of his speech did he mention the Ukrainian people directly, without concrete policy, but instead that our “thoughts and prayers” were with them.
This has not been followed up with a significantly expedited visa processes for Ukrainian refugees. Though the Home Office announced they would increase the number of staff working in UK visa application centres to help address the needs of Ukrainian refugees, many were quick to point out that they had not introduced new emergency application processes and Ukrainians would generally have to apply under existing routes. These are often complicated processes which require substantial paperwork and have long turnaround times. In a tone-deaf move, there has also been no re-consideration of the Nationality and Borders Bill, a piece of legislation that will allow the Government to return asylum seekers and refugees arriving illegally in the UK to their country of origin. It is currently in its latter stages of being drafted into law, although specifics of the Bill could still be amended.
It is disheartening that Johnson’s post-EU Britain is acting less decisive on this matter than the EU is. His inability to act on the humanitarian dimensions of the Ukrainian conflict are out of line with the globally relevant Britain he platforms.
There are three things the UK government must do to turn this around. First, they need to set-up an expedited process for asylum applicants immediately, ideally removing visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees. Failure to do so may lead to more illegal crossings of the English Channel than has been seen in previous years. Second, they need to develop a national integration strategy at pace, bolstering support to community organisations and the third sector. This will need to address both needs of Ukrainian refugees, such as food and shelter in the short-term, then employment and language courses in the long-term. Finally, the government needs to reconsider the Borders Bill, a piece of legislation that will prevent countless refugees from reaching the UK safely.
Somewhat reassuringly, there are hints that the public would approve of these measures. Thousands of protestors filled Trafalgar Square this weekend, showing their support for the Ukrainian people. A recent poll by YouGov showed that six-in-ten Britons would support a scheme to resettle Ukrainians. There is also support from a range of politicians, including Labour MPs and Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, to provide safe and efficient routes to refugees for UK sanctuary.
Rarely are politicians given such easy opportunities to win favour with the public and on the world stage. Unfortunately, Boris Johnson can’t see past his own myopic framing of the situation to take this opportunity. In the end, it is the Ukrainian people who bear the consequences of his inadequacies unless he changes course.
Spencer Rutherford is a researcher in the field of global health, with expertise in refugee health and post-conflict reconstruction, and experience working in Lebanon and India. He is currently based in London and works as a Research Manager with Ipsos in their Public Affairs department. All views are his own.