Editor's note: The article was originally published on March 9 and updated on March 30. As the UK government's approach to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine including accepting and housing refugees evolves, we will be keeping this piece updated with any relevant changes.
Earlier this month, the UK announced a pledge of £120 million in aid to help Ukraine. But that's not the whole story. It's since come to light that buried in the small print of Rishi Sunak's seemingly magnanimous commitment was this: that £120 million is being taken directly from the aid money the UK sends to Yemen and other emergencies. Diverting aid from one crisis to give to another isn't ok. World leaders must provide additional humanitarian support.
For over a month now, people facing the terror of war in Ukraine have made the gut-wrenching decision to leave their homes behind and get to safety. As of March 30, the United Nations estimates that over 4 million people have left Ukraine and millions more are thought to be internally displaced.
The United Nations has launched an urgent humanitarian appeal for $1.7 billion to deliver life-saving humanitarian support but estimates suggest the costs associated with this refugee crisis could be $30 billion a year, or more.
In addition to pitting the world's most vulnerable against each other, Britain's response to the Ukraine refugee crisis has been similarly callous, being variously called: chaotic, lacking humanity, and beset my unworkable bureaucracy. Here's a blow-by-blow account.
A Slow Initial Response
When the conflict breaks out, the UK is quick to say the country will only take those with family connections or sponsorship by a third party. There are two schemes that Ukrainian refugees can apply to. The first is the Ukraine Family Scheme, to which anyone with a family member with settled status in the UK can apply, and lasts three years. The second is the Humanitarian Sponsorship Pathway, which means someone without a family link can get sponsorship from a community organisation, business, local authority, or church to be matched with a UK family and live and work in Britain for 12 months.
The family scheme is criticised for only including certain immediate family members such as children under 18, parents of under-18s, and spouses or partners. On March 4, it's extended to include: siblings, parents of over-18s, children over-18, grandparents, grandchildren, or the grandchildren of partners.
Refugees at the Border Told to Go Back to Paris
Then, at least 150 Ukrainians present themselves at the border crossing in Calais only to be told they have to return to Paris or Brussels to get their visas processed — an approach France's Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin says “lacked humanity”.
The shocking poster that greets Ukraine refugees arriving here in Calais. Appears to be absolutely no official British help on the ground for these traumatised people. The wonderful volunteers of @Care4Calais are doing their best to help. pic.twitter.com/NHFR3ZltHv— Andy Lines (@andylines) March 7, 2022
By March 7, there were reportedly at least 500 Ukrainian refugees staying in hostels in Calais, including women with small babies and elderly people and a mere 50 visas have been granted. The BBC’s news programme Outside Source reported that refugees have struggled to find any UK officials; while one processing centre hall reportedly had a notice from the UK Home Office taped to its door saying “no visas in Calais”. One Ukrainian man, Misha Raminishvili, who lives and works in London and has a UK passport, says: "I feel left out. Who else is going to help me if not my own government?"
Meanwhile, Sky News reports huge backlogs in the system with thousands of people reportedly waiting to see British officials in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine, and in neighbouring countries. Some UK-based family members desperately trying to get their relatives to safety are reported to have been asked to pay for the visa — even though the family scheme is meant to be free. For others trying to apply from afar, the website to do so reportedly crashes or stalls several times, according to the New York Times.
The government comes under fire for its “chaotic” response to the situation.
Ordinary People Allowed to House Refugees
The government says that ordinary people in the UK can offer to sponsor and house Ukrainian refugees who have obtained a visa for at least six months through its Homes For Ukraine scheme, for which hosts will be offered £350 a month.
When the website that lets Brits sign up to offer up their homes goes live on March 14, it prompty crashes "almost immediately", with over 150,000 people registering.
The Refugee Council says it is concerned about the "community sponsorship" with their Chief Executive, Enver Solomon saying: “It’s a bit like asking people to become foster carers without having a social worker in place. There needs to be good quality specialist support otherwise it risks relationships breaking down.”
After weeks of dither and delay the Gov's plan to protect people fleeing the war in Ukraine fails to match the need of the moment and the compassion of the public.— Refugee Action 🧡 (@RefugeeAction) March 13, 2022
In fact, it's a massive downgrade from the UK’s previous support for refugees – and may even put them at risk.🧵
Meanwhile, the charity Refugee Action says the government's plan "fails to match the need of the moment and the compassion of the public."
The charity also warns in a statement that it has "particular concerns" around the proposals, highlighting that Ukrainiains arriving through the scheme will not be given refugee status, which will limit their access to support.
Scotland and Wales Offer to Become Super Sponsors
Criticising the UK response as one “beset with bureaucracy and red tape", the First Ministers of Scotland and Wales, Nicola Sturgeon and Mark Drakeford, say that Scotland and Wales are willing to become “super sponsors” for Ukrainian refugees to speed up the process and allow large numbers to come to the respective nations faster.
What's the Situation Right Now?
As of March 21, around 9,500 visas have been issued to Ukrainians with family ties to the UK out of the 200,000 Boris Johnson claimed could be eligible.
According to the health secretary, Britain could welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine in the next few weeks but refugee charities are still warning that the bureaucracy involved in securing visas is forcing people to wait in dangerous situations.
Meanwhile, there are reports of a growing number of refugees claiming Black people who’ve fled Ukraine are being ignored by the UK government; while critics highlight the difference between support schemes being offered for Ukrainians, compared to support for those fleeing Afghanistan or Syria, for example.
Jabeer Butt, chief executive of the Race Equality Foundation, said: “Devastatingly, race has undoubtedly been an issue in the level of support provided by the UK government for refugees from Ukraine compared with those from Afghanistan and other places that have faced terrible conflict in recent years.”
What Can You Do To Help?
We at Global Citizen believe the UK government must do more. If you do too (and you're based in the UK), then you can join us in taking action by:
Tweeting Rishi Sunak to let him know it is simply not okay to pit the world's most vulnerable against one another by diverting aid from one crisis to another.
Signing this petition demanding that Boris Johnson and Priti Patel waive their restrictive visa requirements and support safe routes for Ukraine’s refugees.
Emailing your MP demanding that the UK restore the aid budget so they know how important this issue is to their constituents. The more voices there are, the more pressure there is to act.
If you're not based in the UK, you can find lots of ways you can take meaningful action to support Ukraine and its people here.