The open-hearted generosity of more than 200,000 UK householders in responding to the invitation to host Ukrainian families fleeing war is greatly encouraging but it is not matched by the negative posture of the government towards refugees in general. By placing a requirement for refugees from Ukraine to apply for a visa – something no refugee should be obliged to do – the government is placing delays and barriers in the way of the natural inclination of the public to care for people in desperate need.

It's sadly no surprise, coming after decades of gradual harshening of the asylum system at the hands of this and previous governments, that a Home Office poised to keep asylum seekers at bay is now incapable of responding adequately to such an obvious and urgent need. It’s no surprise particularly as this is happening at the very time that yet another level of persecution towards refugees is grinding its way into legislation in the form of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which passed its second reading last week. By supposedly introducing ‘safe and legal routes’, the bill is designed to counter the despicable networks of people-smugglers who profit from the near impossibility of asylum seekers’ journeys to the UK. But according to every organisation working with refugees in the UK, it will do neither of these things because those ‘safe and legal routes’ are so limited that those who are unable to access them will simply be pushed into ever more desperate means to make their journey, giving the smuggler networks just another challenge to find ways of exploiting that desperation. Worst of all, the bill seeks to delimit the responsibility of the UK to recognise the right of people to seek asylum based on how they travelled here – a cynical redefinition of the internationally understood meaning of the term ‘refugee’.

Recently working with the inspirational Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais, I encountered hundreds of people living in utter destitution, existing on scraps, sheltering in ragged tents in any corner they could find, denied the dignity of a place to wash, toilet, or sleep in safety. People from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Eritrea, fleeing war, just as Ukrainians are fleeing war.  People from many other places fleeing persecution, repression and terror. Looking into their care-worn faces, the scars of their experiences were as evident as the inhumanity of the politics that is keeping them in destitution.  According to Human Rights Observers (another laudable NGO operating in Calais), asylum seekers are regularly harassed by the French security service CRS, sometimes brutally, chased from one eviction to the next, their tents slashed, what meagre possessions they have confiscated, down to the shoes they stand in. Unsurprisingly, people try to escape this appalling situation by attempting to cross to the UK, taking horrendous risks in doing so. During my stay, for two people those risks proved fatal, and as always takes place after such losses, a group of Calais residents held vigil for them.

Those ordinary residents of Calais, just as the ordinary people of the UK, understand that people who flee impossible situations at home are the same as we are: people with families, friends, livelihoods, skills, aspirations, history, culture and potential. Yet for all the bluster of the government about the generosity of our asylum system, the UK supports a tiny number of refugees per head of population.  Only 0.26% of the UK’s population are refugees, compared with 1.5% in Germany, 6.4% in Jordan and a colossal 12.9% in Lebanon. A miniscule proportion of refugees arriving in Europe attempt to enter the UK. Yet, contrary to the government’s assertions, there is no obligation on people to claim asylum in the first ‘safe’ country they arrive at: anyone may claim asylum in any country they deem appropriate. And how, when fleeing in terror, without access to the normal infrastructure of their lives, is an asylum seeker to know where to find a ‘safe and legal route’ to get there?

There is hope that the Nationality and Borders Bill may be amended, as the Lords has another opportunity to do so before its third reading. Across parliament, Peers and MPs of all parties recognise the shabby nature of its attempt to present punitive meanness as fairness.

Meanwhile, when faced with a hungry person who has travelled thousands of miles, risking everything in dangerous crossings of desert and sea, the natural reaction is to meet them in their need. The compassionate response of the British public to the Ukrainian crisis shows that this bill is not a true reflection of our spirits or our inclinations. Once again it falls to the public to lead the government into a fuller understanding of their obligations both to us and to the international community of which we are part.


Simon Watkins

Hellifield, near Skipton