We belong to the one country in Europe that is comprehensively failing Ukrainian refugees - Dani Garavelli

You’d think by now we’d be inured to the vicarious shame of being governed by Boris Johnson and his band of mf’ers.

In the last two years, his party has introduced policies so oppressive they would make a jailer blush. But nothing - not Brexit, nor the police bill, nor the cuts to Universal Credit - could prepare us for the humiliation of belonging to the one country in Europe that is comprehensively failing Ukrainian refugees.

Thanks to journalists risking their lives on the frontline, we can harbour no illusions about the scale of the unfolding crisis. Night after night, we see them on our TV screens: the old, the frail, mothers with babies, trying to outrun the Russian shelling; not always succeeding. They take with them only what they can carry: a suitcase, a laptop, a family pet. Their trauma is evident, their lives upended, their journeys dangerous, the weather freezing. They have no idea what the future holds.

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Refugees struggle to board a train at Lviv's main station, Ukraine. Picture: Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty ImagesRefugees struggle to board a train at Lviv's main station, Ukraine. Picture: Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Refugees struggle to board a train at Lviv's main station, Ukraine. Picture: Gustavo Basso/NurPhoto via Getty Images
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It is just over a fortnight since Putin’s forces invaded, and already we have witnessed the biggest movement of people in Europe since WWII. The number who have fled stands at two million, and rising.

The EU has responded with speed and compassion. Ukraine is not in the passport-free Schengen area. But the 27 member states have agreed to activate the Temporary Protection Directive so normal asylum procedures can be circumvented. Those who have been displaced will be given residency permits, allowing them to stay within the bloc for at least two years. They will have access to medical care, housing and education.

But the UK spurned the EU; and now it is spurning the Ukrainian refugees. While other countries offer solidarity, Home Secretary Priti Patel obsesses over security. While other countries offer beds, Patel obsesses over biometrics. She has refused to waive visa requirements, limiting access to those with relatives already in the country. By the beginning of last week, the UK government had granted just 50 emergency visas out of 13,500 applications.

Its treatment of those Ukrainians trying to enter the country via France is exacerbating their distress. At Dublin Airport, a welcome lounge was set up with free food and drink and toys for children. In Calais, there was nothing but officiousness from Home Office staff. At first, exhausted refugees were told they must travel on to application centres in Paris or Brussels as if - as Labour MP Jess Phillips put it - they were Interrailing, rather than running for their lives. Patel hasn't a clue. Many of them don’t have a change of clothes or a phone charger, never mind the financial and emotional reserves to tour foreign countries filling out forms.

This approach is not what the British public wants. A recent poll showed the majority think the UK should accept at least 100,000 refugees. Instead we have had to watch, helpless, from the sidelines as others have showcased the best of humanity. Footage of families welcoming Ukrainians into their own homes has stoked our guilt. “You can stay with us as long as you need," Polish couple Kasia and Marcin told Oksana who left after witnessing the fire at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The most people here can do to help the likes of Oksana is to donate money to charity.

It must be discombolating for Patel. She built her brand on migrant-baiting. Keeping marginalised people from our shores has been her raison d’etre. Now she has been blindsided by the shift in public opinion and the U-turn performed by right-wing publications. Eight months ago The Spectator’s front page warned of “The New Migrant Crisis”. Last week, it complained about “The Border Farce”. A cartoon showed politicians from other countries holding up welcome signs while Patel greeted refugees with a massive list headed “criteria”.

There is racism in all this. What is the difference between those seeking sanctuary last July and those seeking sanctuary now? We know the answer to that, and to the question of why some atrocities are more “newsworthy” than others.

At some point, such double standards will have to be confronted. Perhaps reflecting on the bigotry this war has exposed will lead to similar outpourings of support towards those fleeing conflict zones in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. Perhaps, too, those Tory voters distressed by the government's attitude towards Ukrainians will start to question their own choices. The party has long flaunted its "hostile environment” policy. What did its supporters think would happen?

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For now, though, our focus must be on the current emergency. There are limitations to the action NATO countries can take against the Russian onslaught. They have provided Ukraine with weapons. But creating a no-fly zone would, we are told, risk the terrifying prospect of direct war between two nuclear powers.

What the UK must do is to fling its doors open to the uprooted. Under intense pressure, Patel has budged a little. Close relatives will now include uncles, aunts and in-laws, and refugees will be permitted to complete their applications in the UK. On Friday, she announced individuals, charities and businesses would soon be able to sponsor Ukrainians to come here.

But it’s all so slow and bureaucratic. With images of mass graves coming out of Mariupol, the Home Secretary needs to stop fussing over paperwork and let these desperate people in. Give them the shelter they so manifestly deserve; and free those of us who want to help from the reflected shame of the government's intransigence .



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