UK charities have backed The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign, calling on the British government to set up an urgent and properly funded resettlement programme for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion – and to take the lead in offering a wider package of access and support.
So far, an estimated 120,000 Ukrainians have crossed into Poland, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia. With up to 4 million expected to flee in the coming days and weeks as fighting intensifies, charities said Britain needed to create a safe and legal route for Ukrainians escaping the horrors of war – and put a halt to new legislation that criminalises asylum seekers.
The current advice from the UK government to Ukrainians – to seek sanctuary in the country they first enter – was criticised by charities as a way of absolving Britain of responsibility, and stands in stark contrast to the actions of many other EU countries, who have opened their doors to refugees, and countries such as Portugal and Ireland, who have waived visa requirements.
Marian Kemple Hardy, head of campaigns at Refugee Action, said the charity “backed our timely campaign” and urged the UK government to commit to “a properly funded resettlement scheme that can take 10,000 refugees from worldwide conflicts a year”, which could “immediately be opened to fleeing Ukrainians”.
She added: “The government used to have a resettlement scheme, but it has been run down in the last two years, and now helps barely 1,500 people a year. We need a fully funded, ongoing plan for dealing with crises like these that erupt all the time, not just in Ukraine, and we cannot be reacting on a piecemeal basis. We are calling for a global resettlement scheme, set up in line with UN objectives, which would give sanctuary to 10,000 refugees a year in the UK, initially focusing on the Ukrainians.”
But resettlement is not the only measure that charities want to see adopted. Enver Solomon, chief executive of The Refugee Council, who is backing our Refugees Welcome campaign, said that in addition to a resettlement scheme that would help 10,000 refugees a year, the government needed to do two more things.
He said: “There are about 70,000 Ukrainians in the UK, and the government should relax our visa requirements to allow family members of those Ukrainians already in the UK to join them here. This could be done very quickly at the stroke of a pen. Second, we must lead efforts to ensure Ukrainians who need to get out have a safe route to the UK, and the best way is via a humanitarian visa scheme set up along with other EU countries, so that we all share responsibility. That would allow Ukrainians to stay here for a fixed term until they feel safe to return, or apply for leave to remain, but the vast majority who arrive this way will return once Ukraine is safe.”
The charities also want the government to reassess the controversial Nationality and Borders Bill, recently passed in the Commons and currently going through the House of Lords.
Sonya Sceats, chief executive at Freedom from Torture, said the charity supported our campaign, and added that the “refugees bill”, as some are calling it, needed to be stopped in its tracks.
Ms Sceats said: “As we speak, Ukrainian families just like ours are arriving cold and afraid in unfamiliar lands after fleeing Russian tanks. Yet while caring people across the country call on Boris Johnson to help those fleeing the conflict, his government is about to pass a borders bill that will criminalise Ukrainians who make their own way to safety in the UK.
“This bill is not only inhumane, it violates the Refugee Convention at the very moment that Johnson is chastising Putin for breaching international law. Make no mistake, any parliamentarian who votes in favour of this bill is voting to slam the door in the face of Ukrainian men, women and children in need.”
Sabir Zazai, chair of Together With Refugees, a coalition campaign with 400 members, and himself a refugee having fled Afghanistan in 1999, said our campaign and the devastating war highlighted the folly of the government’s bill.
He said: “This devastating news from Ukraine comes just days before the government’s bill, to dramatically erode the UK’s commitment to help those in exactly these circumstances, is being voted on in the Lords. It’s not too late to defeat these cruel proposals to criminalise people like those fleeing Ukraine – just because they arrive here in a small boat on the Channel or in the back of a lorry.
“We need new and safe routes, and a commitment to resettle at least 10,000 refugees from across the world every year. The UK must show humanity and fairness, just as we have been proud to do for many years. The Independent’s campaign in support of refugees could not come at a more critical time.”
Gwen Hines, Save the Children’s CEO, said: “Nowhere in Ukraine is safe for families. Children are being killed, injured, forced from their homes, separated from relatives and friends, and terrified by explosions. We’re urging the UK government to put children at the heart of its discussions about the crisis. They should support families who have fled their country in fear, and be generous enough to offer sanctuary in this country for those with nowhere to go.”
An Amnesty International spokesperson said they supported a “well-resourced UK evacuation and resettlement programme”, and that it was important for the UK to play a leading role in international efforts to “welcome Ukrainians who need sanctuary”.
Support also came from Laurence Guinness, chief executive of The Childhood Trust, who said: “As London’s child poverty charity, we support thousands of disadvantaged children who have found sanctuary in London from war-torn countries. We know only too well the horror of war for children. That is why we are supporting The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign, and call upon the government to provide urgent and immediate safe passage to the UK for Ukrainians and their children.”
Additional reporting by Sam Lovett
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