Traditional conservatism is being subverted by the Ukraine crisis

There is a hard lesson to be learned here: to have a system capable of helping the most vulnerable, it must help everyone

Phil McDuff
Sunday 20 March 2022 16:02
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<p>The ideological underpinnings of the UK’s asylum system are deeply conservative</p>

The ideological underpinnings of the UK’s asylum system are deeply conservative

Recent weeks have seen an upsurge in sympathy for the plight of displaced Ukrainians in the wake of Putin’s shock invasion of the country. The Home Office is suddenly under fire for being slow to offer aid to those in need, even from the right-wing opinion formers who until a few weeks ago would incessantly demand the exact opposite.

There are several plausible explanations for why Ukrainians have received such a markedly different response to, say, Iraqis or Libyans over the years. For a start, as has been demonstrated by various unguarded remarks by certain sections of the media, Ukrainians seem to have become racialised as white, “blue eyed” Europeans, in contrast both to the dark-skinned, Muslim populations of the Middle East, or indeed to the populations of Romania or Poland, who have been subjected to demonisation and stereotyping in the British press under the generic banner of “Eastern European”.

Secondly, many of the conflicts that have triggered previous waves of refugees are the result of our own foreign policy, or those of our allies. We cannot afford to be too concerned with what they are fleeing from, lest we implicate ourselves. In contrast, Putin’s actions in Ukraine have propelled Russia back up to its Cold War position as our favourite official enemy nation. There is no conflict between condemning Russia as the instigator of a brutal invasion and drawing attention to the predicament of the Ukrainians fleeing the war zone.

Whatever the reason, Ukrainian refugees seem to be seen as more “genuine” – both in sectors of the press and by the public – unlike “bogus asylum seekers” taking advantage of us, and we are therefore more inclined to accept them.

Whatever the cause of the sharp change in sentiment, it has run afoul of a major issue. The UK has spent several decades making the process of migrating to the UK more difficult, time-consuming and costly. From the opening of migrant detention centres under the New Labour government in the early 2000s to the Nationality and Borders Bill currently before parliament, the trend has been towards tightening, restricting and preventing immigration, with concessions towards ensuring the safe and humane treatment of refugees being little more than lip service in practice.

As a result, Ukrainians trying to come to the UK have faced a system described as “humiliating”. The UK’s insistence on requiring visas, in contrast to other European countries, has introduced many Ukrainians to a system which is both byzantine and Kafkaesque by design, its very complexity and inaccessibility a part of the system of deterrence.

Responding to the change in public sentiment, the government has launched a new “Homes for Ukraine” scheme this week. Under this, people in the UK can offer to sponsor visas and provide rooms or homes for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict.

But as Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, has said, the government is still insisting on visas. “The government is relying on what is effectively a managed migration route to respond to a humanitarian crisis,” he writes. “This inevitably means paperwork and bureaucracy are being put before people’s urgent needs.” Even in the face of overwhelming public support for accepting Ukrainian refugees, the government finds itself incapable of simply doing the right thing.

Daniel Trilling, author of Lights in the Distance: exile and refuge at the borders of Europe, said: “It looks like the government wants to pick and choose which groups of refugees it offers help to.” As Trilling points out, “this threatens to undermine a key principle of the international system for refugee protection, which is that everyone has the right to seek asylum regardless of where they’re from. If every country behaved like the UK, that international system would quickly disintegrate.”

But is such a cherry-picking approach to humanitarianism even possible? There are deeper issues being revealed here. The institutions through which state power is expressed have an inertia to them. They are lumbering behemoths – as you would expect from organisations tasked with the management of millions of people.

The ideological underpinnings of the UK’s asylum system are deeply conservative. Like the benefits system, it is designed with the assumption that everyone applying should be first assumed to be a fraudster or scrounger, and that they must prove that they are not. However, there is a caveat to this: we don’t mean me or my friends or other people that we like.

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The nature of Johnsonism, in particular, has brought this undercurrent to the surface. The exceptions to the rule were definitely going to include you and yours, because the prime minister acts like your pal who gets that you’re not one of the scroungers. At last, the British state would be making sure the right kind of people were getting special treatment and those “others” would be suffering at its hand.

We are seeing in real time that this myth cannot hold up. If you design a border system to exclude as many people as possible, to punish before it helps, then that is exactly what it will do, even if you try to carve exclusions into it. Large, lumbering beasts of bureaucracy will not read the mind of Dave in Essex and ask if he really meant these refugees when he voted for a party which promised to tighten the system. It will simply respond to the rules and practices that were put in place because millions of people voted for them.

There is a hard lesson to be learned here: to have a system capable of helping the most vulnerable, it must help everyone. If we do not err on the side of too much compassion, we will instead err on the side of cruelty. There is no point, in 2022, asking why the Home Office is behaving this way towards Ukrainians who clearly deserve better, when it is simply doing exactly what we have asked it to do.

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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