Refugees from Ukraine
Published date : 16 March, 2022
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Allow me, at the outset of my remarks, to salute the courage of the people of Ukraine, who are being brutalised by a kleptocratic murderer who seeks to deny them the rights
that all free people wish for—the rights simply to be able to live in peace with their neighbours in prosperity and to be able to choose the manner in which they are governed and who they are governed by. We should be clear that the only person responsible for the situation that we are discussing right now—the only person responsible for the tide of humanity and misery that we are seeing exit Ukraine—is Vladimir Putin himself.
But while we are not responsible, that does not mean that we are without responsibilities. I commend the UK Government for the military aid and the long-term approach taken to military training. We are seeing the effectiveness of that in defending the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. I commend the humanitarian response that there has been from all quarters. A small example from my own constituency is the work of Mark Allan, a part-time firefighter who, together with the Scottish Emergency Rescue Association, has been working with my constituency office to get the necessary paperwork from the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in order to be able to take fire engines to Ukraine to assist with the humanitarian effort.
What concerns me is what we are doing, or more often not doing, with regard to sanctuary. The Home Office is clearly a Department that, for some time, has not had its troubles to seek, whether in terms of its organisational capacity, its institutional culture or aspects of its political leadership. I do not say that to be critical of the thousands of dedicated people within that organisation who are working night and day to achieve the best outcomes that they possibly can in the most unprecedented and distressing of circumstances, but equally that should not hinder us from saying that more needs to be done when that is true, because let us be quite clear about this: we are seeing the biggest enforced mass movement of people, unparalleled in scale, since world war two.
I have been working, as I am sure we all have, with constituents who have their own stories to tell—who are either fleeing with family members who are Ukrainian nationals or trying to bring over a sister, a brother, a cousin or somebody else who is dear and special to them. The thread that runs through this is that they have all reported the same traumatic story not just of conflict, death and injury, but of the obstacles and time delays of the visa application system that they have encountered. While I welcome the changes and flexibilities that came into place yesterday that allow Ukrainian nationals to do their biometrics in the UK, that has not changed the essential nature of the unnecessary suffering for many refugees trying to flee the most desperate and dangerous of circumstances to seek safety in the UK.
To give an example, one of my constituents, whose case became known in the press, is Kenneth Stewart, who tried to leave with his family before the attacks from the Russian state began, when the advice from the UK Government was to leave on commercial flights, but was unable to leave with his wife, who is a Ukrainian national. They have two young children, the youngest of whom was born only two weeks previously. They fled initially to Poland to seek sanctuary there, and arrived in the UK only last week, as soon as they were permitted to enter as a family. Along the way, quite apart from the dangers that they encountered as the attacks were under way, they had to wait in a 40-hour queue at the Polish border in sub-zero temperatures—and this, remember,
with a two-week child in the back. That is absolutely unimaginable for all of us. While I am glad that they are here and they are safe, and that their circumstances are moving on, we should understand that we are still potentially placing many others in similar situations as they seek to come to safety.
Another constituent, Lyudmyla Wilson, has faced numerous obstacles in trying to bring her daughter and grandchildren safely through the visa process. She has had difficulty accessing information through the helplines, and that has only added to the anxiety and fears for her daughter’s and grandchildren’s safety. She was advised to wait for the results of her biometrics, which she did on Saturday. My office is still following up on that, but unfortunately, as far as I am aware, in the time since I took to my feet, she is still waiting for a decision that we are told is in progress. I could go on.
Last week, in response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), the Prime Minister boasted:
“We have done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country since 2015.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2022; Vol. 710, c. 318.]
Let us examine and unpack that claim a little bit. In the past two weeks, some 2.8 million Ukrainian refugees have already fled the horrors of war, and, as we have heard, that number is rising rapidly. Of the upwards of 260,000 who have made their way to countries that do not directly border Ukraine, only a fraction have so far been able to come to the UK. While the UK has issued about 4,000 family visas, many thousands more are currently stuck in the application process, and many, many thousands beyond that, I am certain, have not even entered the process yet.
I am sorry to say that the contrast at this point, whatever the good intentions, could not be clearer. Across Europe, our neighbours are stepping up to meet this challenge, waiving bureaucratic requirements and placing refuge and sanctuary first with bureaucracy coming second, where it ought to be. EU guidelines approved on 3 March on the temporary protection directive demonstrate how a high level of security and assurance can be maintained while removing the bureaucratic barriers for those in need. The directive offers temporary protection in the EU, giving individuals fleeing war residence permits and access to education and the labour market. In the midst of a conflict, it is neither reasonable nor morally acceptable to expect individuals to have to overcome those hurdles. We can bring them to safety now at no detriment to our own safety while allowing them then to complete the processes that we would wish them to.
It is not just the SNP that is saying this. The Refugee Council has said the UK has not been as welcoming for Ukrainian refugees as our EU counterparts, saying that the response to date “falls short” and
“will inevitably be restricted to those who are known to people in the UK”.
The British Red Cross, which I would hope we could take as an unimpeachable authority on this, has said that the quickest way of fixing problems in the system would be to remove the requirements for a visa, as has been done in other countries.
I firmly believe that the UK Government must go further and faster to help refugees by supporting the Scottish and Welsh Government super sponsors bid.
In a joint letter from the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales to the UK Minister for Housing, they have agreed to take part in the UK-wide scheme, which is absolutely right, but they call for the scheme to go further and faster with less bureaucracy, and propose becoming super sponsors to speed up the process. The newly appointed Scottish refugee Minister, Neil Gray, who is well known to this House from the time that he served as the hon. Member for Airdrie and Shotts, has said:
“By acting as ‘super sponsor’ rather than waiting for the UK government’s matching process, we can provide safety and sanctuary to people immediately and welcome significant numbers of refugees from Ukraine to Scotland”,
including by providing support mechanisms for refugees such as temporary accommodation and wraparound support while longer-term arrangements are put in place.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I am acutely aware of your strictures on time, so I will draw my remarks to a close by saying that I am sure that people across these islands are ready to open their doors and their hearts to these refugees, and it is time to waive visa requirements and put people, rather than processes, first.
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