Helping Ukrainians fleeing war – or not. How do you define a family?

Meme by Sadie Parker

Many of us were inspired and heartened when Poland threw open its borders to Ukrainians fleeing the war on February 25, only 24 hours after the present phase of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began. (We say “the present phase”, because Russia has been attacking Ukraine’s territorial integrity since 2014, with the annexation of the Republic of Crimea and the federal city of Sevastopol on March 18 that year.) In a statement on its government portal, Poland explained Ukrainians did not need papers or visas or proof of covid vaccination, and could even bring their pets. If they did not have a place to stay in Poland, they could go to any of nine reception points, all equipped with medics, vets and volunteers to welcome and help people. Over the weekend, Poles lined up at football stadiums to donate blood.

As of 7am on February 28, more than 281,000 Ukrainian citizens had availed themselves of Poland’s extraordinary act of generosity and solidarity:

The citizens of Poland can rightfully feel proud. Their example of compassion, humanity and charity was soon followed by other Eastern European countries, including Hungary, Moldova, Romania and Slovakia. Then, after unanimous agreement amongst its member states, the EU announced on February 27 that it would allow Ukrainians to remain in the EU for up to three years without having to formally seek asylum. Talk about an agile response.

What was the UK government doing? While its citizens were clamouring for its government to show kindness, goodwill and relief to Ukrainian refugees, the government was busy attempting to disguise its hostility to foreigners while still trying to claim the moral high ground. There had been massive criticism of immigration minister and Torbay MP Kevin Foster’s claim that the UK government had not closed safe, legal routes to the UK from Ukraine (it had just made it harder by moving the office responsible out of Kyiv). And that’s not to mention his insensitive “let them come here and pick fruit” tweet, now deleted (but recorded for posterity in the article linked above).

Johnson was on the back foot. What was the man to do? He chose to do what he always does: bloviate, bluster and plump for a photo op. First of all, there was the photo of him on the tarmac next to a plane at Brize Norton, surrounded by beefy men in army uniforms – no doubt “inspired” by the photo of President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine in uniform, on the front line, fighting to defend his country. Then there was the photo of Johnson attending a service at a Ukrainian orthodox church.

As if to underscore this pivot to Christian values, Johnson later announced any Ukrainian national currently in the UK on a visitor, seasonal worker, butcher or points-based immigration visa can extend it, while those who have settled permanently in the UK would be allowed to bring immediate family members here to join them.

But don’t break out the champagne just yet…

The Home Office has defined “family” in the narrowest possible way. If your children are adults, they are no longer considered to be your “immediate family” and you cannot claim them. If you are an adult, you cannot claim your parents or siblings. The only exceptions are if you are their carer. To make matters worse, they still have to apply for a visa in the normal way, unlike, say, our near neighbour Ireland, which has waived visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals.

As with so many other positions and policies of this government, this is outrageous. You can be certain that if government MPs had adult children, or parents, or siblings living in a war zone, they would define them as “family” and want to get them out. It’s as if the UK is saying, “you’re welcome, not welcome” to Ukrainian refugees.

Perhaps this callousness can be explained by Boris Johnson being rather blasé about family, having never come clean about how many children he has fathered. Or because he has become a Catholic, and the Catholic Church does not recognise Jesus Christ’s half-siblings and has written them out of its Bible. Or because he just can’t quite give up the performative cruelty to foreigners that is one of the hallmarks of his administration. Whatever the reason for this begrudged “welcome” to Ukrainian nationals on UK soil, he is badly out of step with public sentiment.

According to a recent poll by YouGov, 63 per cent of Brits support taking in Ukrainian refugees. That splits out at 56 per cent Conservative voters and 79 per cent Labour voters, so there is a majority even in Johnson’s own party to help. The Labour Party has said the government must go further, while the Refugee Council has described UK proposals as mean-spirited. Even the Daily Mail says the UK has a moral duty to take in Ukrainian refugees…

The government’s response? One bitter government minister told Tamara Cohen of Sky News that “we are being criticised for not having a free for all”. Well, yes. In times of war the requirements should not be nearly as stringent as they are when we are enjoying a period of peace. People are dying. Children are amongst the casualties. What is it about the seriousness of the situation that Home Office ministers cannot grasp?

When I see what other countries are doing, and how far behind them we are in terms of warmth and magnanimity, it reminds me of that conversation in Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility” when Elinor asks her younger sister if she compares her conduct with that of Willoughby, her bounder of a suitor, and Marianne answers:

“No. I compare it with what it ought to have been; I compare it with yours.”

British people are looking at the generosity of other European countries and wishing that was us: because it’s the right thing to do and because it’s the British thing to do. Our hearts go out to the Ukrainian people and we want our government, who are supposed to represent us, to give practical and meaningful expression to those feelings. We want a demonstration of British liberality, not more Tory libertarianism.

There is a glimmer of hope, though. Taken aback by all the criticism on social media this past weekend, there are rumours of moves afoot at the Home Office to do more for Ukrainian refugees, which all goes to show the importance of raising our voices, instead of being passive bystanders grumbling amongst ourselves.

Ignore all the Boris Johnson stan [stalker fan] accounts accusing anyone who criticises his paltry response of being a “Remainer”! Keep raising your voices on social media and sending those emails to your local MP. The UN says 500,000 people have been displaced so far, but forecasts there will be up to 4,000,000 refugees if the conflict drags on, so we need to step up and match the generosity of neighbouring countries.

You can sign a petition asking government to waive visa requirements HERE.