Social Justice

More than 100,000 call on Boris Johnson to ‘do the right thing’ for Ukrainian refugees

The UK's response to the crisis in Ukraine is "mean spirited" while EU countries pledge to accept refugees for three years, campaigners said

ukraine protest

Protesters took to Downing Street in solidarity with Ukrainian people last week. Image: Steve Eason/Flickr

More than 137,000 people have backed a petition urging Boris Johnson to offer more robust protections for refugees fleeing violence in Ukraine and condemning the widely-criticised Nationality and Borders Bill.

The prime minister has said immediate family members could join Ukrainians already settled in the UK but this prompted fierce criticism as other European countries developed plans to welcome all refugees from Ukraine for three years without requiring them to apply for asylum.

Nearly 370,000 people have fled Ukraine since the Russian military invasion began last week. As many as four million people could be forced to flee Putin’s forces if the violence continues, according to the UN.

The petition – set up by charity Freedom From Torture and backed by more than 100 organisations – calls on the UK government to develop a comprehensive humanitarian response that “matches the scale of the crisis unfolding in Ukraine and in neighbouring states”, as well as demanding a commitment to help bring 10,000 refugees to safety in the UK every year.

While ministers’ decision to relax visa requirements for Ukrainian people trying to unite with immediate family members in the UK is “welcome”, it “falls well short of what is needed,” said Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, which co-signed the petition.

Under this new rule, spouses and civil partners, unmarried partners of at least two years, children under the age of 18 and adult relatives who are carers are among those who can now apply for a family visa for free. Yvette Cooper, Labour’s shadow home secretary, said it was “shameful of the government to refuse to even help other relatives in a terrible European war like this”.

The government’s current plan for Ukraine “does very little to reassure people fleeing war and bloodshed that they will be able to seek sanctuary in our country,” Solomon added.

“Compared to the EU’s decision to take in refugees for up to three years without having to apply for asylum, it looks mean spirited and sends a message to desperate Ukrainians in search of safety that unless they have a family member in the UK, they are not welcome.”

Campaigners also warned against the government’s widely-condemned Nationality and Borders Bill, set to be voted on in the House of Lords today (Monday February 28). Protesters will gather from 6pm to demonstrate against the bill while peers debate it.

The petition called on ministers to remove clause 11 of the legislation – dubbed the “anti-refugee bill” – which could criminalise people seeking safety who arrive in the UK without a valid visa or arrive here by “irregular” journey, such as by dinghy across the Channel. Refugees could be jailed for up to four years under the proposed law.

It is important not to divert attention from the bill “whilst the horrors of Ukraine unfold before our eyes”, Solomon said, adding that it will “flagrantly undermine our obligation to give all those who seek asylum a fair hearing on our soil”.

“The bill would treat men, women and children, like those from Ukraine, embarking on terrifying journeys over land to flee war and persecution, as criminals on reaching our shores. We urge the government to immediately rethink this cruel and harmful legislation.”

The prime minister also announced an extra £40m of humanitarian support such as medical supplies for Ukraine, pledging that the UK “will not turn our backs in Ukraine’s hour of need”.

But the government came under fire this weekend when Immigration Minister Kevin Foster said – in a since-deleted tweet – that Ukrainians without immediate family in the UK could apply to the seasonal workers scheme if they wanted to seek safety here.

The government’s plan “promises to offshore [people] while their case is being heard and it threatens to criminalise people,” said Tim Naor Hilton, chief executive of Refugee Action, as the Nationality and Borders Bill returned to parliament. “People will serve jail sentences for this, yet all they’re looking to do is find protection.

“This is the important thing – that we look at creating a refugee protection system that is not just based on the whackamole concept that this government has got at the moment where one crisis happens and they react in a panic to that crisis, like they did in Afghanistan and like they will no doubt do in the Ukrainian situation.”

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