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By Susie Ballentyne

The UK government is currently offering a lacklustre package of support for refugees coming from Ukraine. As the controversial Nationalities and Borders Bill is debated and continues to pass through Parliament, what’s holding us back from making the sort of compassionate commitment our neighbours in Europe have offered?

While the EU has led the way in relaxing visa and entry requirements to those escaping conflict in Ukraine, the UK has had to be chivvied by public pressure to offer a more humanitarian response. On March 1st the UK extended its policy to help those fleeing the Russian invasion to encompass immediate family members of those Ukrainians already settled in this country. This, the government proudly anticipates, will allow 100,000 more Ukrainians to come to the UK. Meanwhile, in Poland in six days of conflict alone, over half a million refugees have already arrived.

Since controlling immigration became the cornerstone of a new political policy in the late 1990s and following a significant increase of asylum cases to Europe in 2015, there has been an ongoing, highly politicised public debate about immigration and the UK government’s response to migrants and asylum seekers arriving in the UK. Coupled with the strategy by the Conservative government in 2010 to create a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigration, government policies have increasingly aimed to deter asylum seekers from coming to the UK and to encourage those who had been refused asylum to leave. 

Critics widely condemn the new UK Nationality and Borders bill as an ‘anti-refugee bill’ which undermines the UK ‘s commitment the 1951 UN Refugee Convention on Human Rights. In particular, the bill conveys an insidious and damaging notion about those in need of asylum, which has also been alluded to in recent days in relation to the Ukraine crisis: some fleeing conflict are simply not the ‘right kind’ of refugee. The idea that there are different types of refugee clearly flies in the face of the Refugee Convention, yet you don’t have to look far to see how different ‘types of refugee’ are being constructed. Within the Borders Bill itself, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the proposed legislation is that someone in need of help who arrives into the UK via an ‘irregular route’ will not meet the criteria for claiming asylum. The Bill proposes that such a person will not be considered in the same class as someone who arrives to the UK directly from the country they are fleeing. Instead of receiving sanctuary they could be penalised in a number of ways, from being barred from joining with other family members, to receiving a jail sentence. Yet those facing the imminent dangers of conflict – those the Refugee Convention was established to protect – simply need to leave and get themselves and their family to safety by whichever means. As the British-Somali poet Warsan Shire wrote, ‘no-one puts their child on a boat unless the water is safer than the land.’

Like many other aspects of the current UK asylum screening system, eligibility to claim refugee status seems to be less about experiences of persecution and more about  conforming to process. Attempts to identify those ‘in genuine need’ is buttressed by the use of security and biometrics checks which seek to differentiate between those in need and those who present a risk to UK security. This is the discourse that problematises the asylum system in Britain: some who claim to be refugees threaten our domestic homeland and are not to be trusted. In announcing the new measures designed to help refugees fleeing from Ukraine, Priti Patel took the opportunity to remind the British public of the Salisbury nerve-agent attack in 2018 and of the risk of Russian infiltration into the Ukrainian Army. Both are serious security concerns, but neither empirically relate to the arrival of refugees from Ukraine. In the UK, security takes primacy over solidarity and shapes our understanding what ‘being a refugee’ means.

Identity construction has become part of everyday common knowledge; language, particularly terms which construct binary and opposing representations, such as being ‘civilised’ or ‘uncivilised’, being a ‘genuine’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker can be found in an array of documentation from newspapers to government-produced immigrant information sources in which taken-for-granted categorisations are constructed. Whilst in early March the House of Lords rejected clause 11 of the Borders Bills which sought to divide refugees into two classes, other comments in recent days suggest the notion of refugees as being ‘bogus, ‘untrustworthy’ or ‘undeserving’ continue to shape the asylum debate. An unchallenged comment on the BBC’s flagship news programme by the Ukrainian deputy chief prosecutor, that he feels emotional “because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed” suggests at best, compassion fatigue for those fleeing from Afghanistan or Syria, or at worst, racism. Similarly, remarks made by a CBS foreign correspondent that Ukraine “…isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades… You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European….” imply, as the Arab and Middle East Journalist Association (AMEJA) criticised in their response, that certain countries due to ‘race’ or economic factors are more deserving of conflict and humanitarian disaster, than others. Language that normalises conflict in these regions fuels a toxic notion that not only divides and essentialises populations into ‘civilised’ and ‘uncivilised’, but this then drives an assertion about who is more genuinely in need and deserving of our help.

Other experiences of such discrimination are more immediate. Reports have been verified that Ukrainian military at border points have been dividing those fleeing the conflict into two lines, categorised by colour, with those perceived as ‘white Ukrainians’ being given preferential treatment. Reports of racist and inhumane behaviour towards refugees fleeing Ukraine was strongly condemned by the UN Security Council as unacceptable and a breach of international law. Yet, for the Ukraine’s minority population of black and Asian citizens, along with the African and Asian students, 80,000 of whom come to Ukraine each year to study, persecution isn’t solely being driven by Putin’s forces. Again, refugees are being discriminated against and sub-divided, not by their plight but by the perceptions of those who have the power to offer sanctuary.

No doubt all this is a convenient by-product of war for Putin. Certainly, creating a humanitarian disaster is a strategy of armed-conflict, and Putin is well aware that there are tensions and cracks in the European asylum system he can try to exploit.  For this reason, we must work even harder to not allow any unhumanitarian own-goals. As the numbers of refugees from Ukraine exceed one million, there is an onus on us all, as many Poles, Moldavians, Slovakians, Romanian and Hungarians have already done, to recognise the common humanity for all people fleeing war. Behaviours and processes that dehumanise refugees, whether at the borders of Ukraine, in refugee legislation, or even thoughtless news commentary, not only play into the hands of the aggressors, but perpetuate a disregard for the very people who, now more than ever, need our empathy and solidarity.

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