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The UK's immigration system is not fit to respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis

3 min read

“Whoever rescues a single soul is credited as though they had saved the whole world”. This maxim, from the Jewish Talmud, is often quoted in tribute to Britain’s help for refugees during the Second World War.

We should keep these words close to our hearts as we respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis today.

The government’s heart is in the right place, but its policies have not kept up. A noble and genuine endeavour has had a shambolic start. Only a miniscule number of Ukrainians have been granted entry into the UK under the available visa scheme. Thousands of others have been caught in limbo, unable to reach the relevant authorities or navigate the complex bureaucracy.

While I am delighted that the Home Secretary has announced a simplified online visa scheme, the chaos facing Ukrainian asylum seekers is symptomatic of a deeper problem here at home.

Our immigration system, and specifically our asylum policies, are not equipped to respond flexibly to emergencies such as Ukraine or Afghanistan – or deal with the wider net of asylum seekers from different parts of the world.

Ultimately this is about saving lives

The good news is that we have a chance to fix the system. The Nationality and Borders Bill will be returning to the House of Commons in the next couple of weeks containing important amendments for change. Two of these amendments, led by former immigration minister Lord Kirkhope, are designed to help refugees avoid more trauma and chaos.

The first amendment will put an end to the government’s plans to create offshoring detention centres in a foreign country. This was always an ill-conceived proposal, and it is utterly unjustifiable in the face of the largest refugee crisis in a century.

Offshoring would cost the British taxpayer at least £2 million per person, per year. It would sanction the forced transportation of traumatised refugees to places such as Ascension Island off the coast of Africa, which has no infrastructure, no direct access and no proper links to the outside world. We may as well be sending people to Guantanamo Bay: in the middle of nowhere, without the safety net of UK laws, we risk exposing them to mistreatment.

The second amendment that MPs must consider is the creation legal and safe routes for 10,000 refugees each year. If these were lacking before they are absolutely urgent now.  Many people will be surprised to learn that there are no proper resettlement schemes in place to address global refugee demands.

There is currently no way to make an asylum claim without already being present in the UK, which creates a catch-22 for asylum seekers, who want to come to the UK legally, but have no legal means of doing so.

In the absence of legal routes, safe passage goes out of the window. Many of these refugees end up making dangerous journeys, at the mercy of people smugglers, because desperate people will do desperate things.

The infrastructure is all wrong. If we had a resettlement scheme, we could have avoided the chaos Afghan refugees experienced last year, and we would not be witnessing the chaos Ukrainians are experiencing right now.

A statutory scheme, built from the bottom up, designed to help refugees from different conflict zones, will in turn build up our resilience to respond to crises. Ultimately this is about saving lives, as this country has strived to do time and again. Britain’s legacy should guide us forward.


Andrew Mitchell is the Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield and former international development secretary. 

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