The UK Government cannot pass responsibility for its international obligations

Danielle Cohen
By Danielle Cohen Immigration Law Solicitor Linkedin
Danielle Cohen has over 20 years of experience as a lawyer and a reputation for offering professional, honest and expert advice.
24 May 2022

It is not a surprise to those who have been working with refugees that the UK immigration system is unable to welcome a large number of Ukrainian refugees with any sense of urgency. 

Mike Slaven of the LSC British Politics and Policy stated in his article dated 14th March 2022 that the disparity, slowness and rigidity of the state response “is down to lack of political leadership and an immigration bureaucracy so thoroughly fixed for decades on the suspicion and control of forced emigrants that it is now incapable of welcoming even refugees with substantial public sympathy across Europe and in the UK”.  He further states that with the background of hostility to refugees, it has been remarkable the extent to which scenes of white Ukrainians fleeing prompted a U-turn on the attitude towards asylum seekers across Europe. Expansive temporary protection directive which was used by the EU to welcome the Ukrainians was not used to offer temporary protection to other refugees. At the heart of the bureaucracy, he argues is not only lack of experience of treating classes of forced emigrants quickly, but also the underlying mentality presuming asylum seekers not to be credible.  

The Scottish Refugee Council warned the UK Government that it is not acceptable for the UK Government to pass responsibility on to communities for its international obligations to protect refugees.  The Scottish and Welsh Governments decided to act as super sponsors to try to speed up the process of getting the Ukrainian people to safety.  However, the UK Government has not listened and it continues to create bespoke visa schemes whilst trying to push the anti-refugee Bill through Parliament.  It is possible to say that the UK Government in its treatment of the Ukrainians, if not other asylum seekers, is not acting in the spirit of the Refugee Convention. It is not clear why the UK did not waive the visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals as other European countries did, and did not put people first and processes later. 

In essence, the Home for Ukrainians Scheme heavily relies on the goodwill of charities and civil society to match sponsors who have accommodation with Ukrainian refugees. In order to streamline the scheme, security checks for sponsors have been minimalised and raises concern about safeguarding, given the fact that many refugees will require specific support because of trauma they may have experienced from leaving their homes to rebuild their lives in another country.  In short, the UK has rushed to make the UK’s policy appear as generous as that of the EU in line with the public mood, but this scheme is consistent with the Nationality & Borders Bill mentality which will criminalise those Ukrainians and all other refugees reaching the United Kingdom without visas, and make Britain one of the most refugee hostile countries in the world.    

Sonia Seats, Chief Executive of the Charity Freedom from Torture, told the that the new Bill completely tears apart the Refugee Convention signed by Britain after World War II, which says that refugees must not be penalised based on how they arrive.  She says it seems a return to the permit-based system, which resulted in many Jews being unable to reach Britain during the 1930s and the Holocaust.  She also said that the Government enjoys the PR victory with its Homes for Ukrainians campaign and it is hard to explain to the other refugees who are waiting in the asylum system for many years, why they are being treated differently.  

Some European commentators on Western media have described the Ukrainian refugees as being “civilised”, middle class and prosperous and different from those from “Third World Nations”. “These people are Europeans” said the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Kiril Petkov.  “These people are intelligent, he explained, they are educated people… this is not a refugee we have been used to”.

On a different note, it might have been a great opportunity for Britain post Brexit to be able to meet the needs of the economy and the market by allowing Ukrainians to come to the UK, and to regularise the status of Ukrainians who are here and who cannot be removed.  The rigidity of the UK Government casts doubt on the Government’s claims to be a global Britain which seeks to globally engage with individuals from around the world.  With the UK facing a shortage of workers, including in many areas where asylum seekers have skills, it doesn’t make any sense not to welcome more Ukrainians to the UK or to lift the ban on asylum seekers working. 

But the Rwanda plan is a surprise, even to the experienced practitioner! Back in 2003, Oliver Letwin, then the shadow home secretary, spoke about sending asylum seekers to a foreign island ‘far, far away’ – but the problem was finding a place that would agree. In Kagame, they have found someone who is hugely skilled at identifying western needs.  According to Michela Wrong at The Spectator magazine this week, “Long before Patel flew to Kigali, Denmark’s government had been discussing a similar offshore arrangement, and before that, Rwanda agreed to take in thousands of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum-seekers whom the then Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu wanted rid of.”

“What was striking about the statements made by Boris Johnson, Patel and Tom Pursglove last week was their blank ahistoricism. Rwanda is ruled by a political party with a 32-year record of human rights violations – the killings date back to before the movement seized power in 1994 – but this was omitted from the spin about the ‘UK-Rwanda partnership’ for which the Home Office has designed a snappy logo.”

Matthew Rycroft said, that while there was not sufficient evidence of the scheme’s benefit, that would not mean it would not work. In practice, what this deal envisages, is an end to the system of protection for those fleeing war and persecution. The problem with the government’s argument, that those who come here come for a better life and nothing more, is the fact that many of those who cross the Channel are subsequently granted refugee status, as the Home Office decides that they have well-founded fear of persecution in their country of origin.