Refugees need to be welcomed for years to come

A refugee who fled the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine pushes a baby stroller after crossing the

Refugees are fleeing the conflict in Ukraine - Credit: AP

Everyone shares the sense of outrage over Vladimir Putin’s despicable invasion of Ukraine and terrible loss of life it is causing. At the time of writing it looks as though Putin will increase his aggression and commit even greater atrocities in order to get his way. He has even threatened to use nuclear weapons and unfortunately, we have to take that seriously.

The resistance of many ordinary Ukrainians - and brave Russian protesters - is truly inspiring and deserves our country’s support. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians are understandably fleeing to neighbouring countries. The European Union has decided to give all Ukrainians fleeing this war the right to live and work there for at least two years.

In contrast, the UK government is allowing only family members of existing UK residents to come. Ukrainians trying to board the Eurostar for the UK have been turned back in Paris, as the government refuses to waive visa requirements. One Devon Tory MP, Kevin Foster (Torbay), an immigration minister no less, even said that Ukrainians without family in the UK could apply to work on British farms.

They don’t seem to understand that, as refugees, Ukrainians shouldn’t need visas to come here. However, the Conservative Party has been so contaminated by the anti-asylum seeker rhetoric of Nigel Farage and some national papers that it is lagging behind every country in Europe in offering help to Putin’s victims. One Tory MP even revived the poisonous opposition to East Europeans which fuelled the Brexit campaign, in order to say no to Ukrainian refugees.

In this context, I was glad to see that the East Devon MP, Simon Jupp, signed a statement saying that ‘Ukrainian victims of war seeking refuge are welcome’, and arguing for ‘a flexible and pragmatic approach to those Ukrainians who wish to seek temporary refuge in the UK’.

That emphasis on ‘temporary’ seemed however to undermine the clear welcome that Mr Jupp is advocating. Certainly, most Ukrainians will want to go home if Putin backs off and their country becomes a free and peaceful place. But it is unhelpful at this stage to highlight the ‘temporary’ nature of the welcome, when (even in the best scenario) Ukraine will remain troubled for quite some time.

We need to face the fact that millions may need refuge for years to come. Spread out over the whole of Europe, that should be manageable, and while most may (as Tory MPs eagerly claim) prefer to stay in countries near to Ukraine, we should welcome, as Ireland has done, the fact that others will wish to come here because they have friends in the UK or speak English or for other reasons (after Ukrainian and Russian, English is the most spoken language in Ukraine).

The government’s disarray on this issue reflects its marginalisation within the West. Far from ‘Global Britain’ leading the way, the UK has been outside the room when key decisions have been made in the EU, with Boris Johnson and Liz Truss reduced to seeking photo opportunities on the sidelines.

We should be grateful that despite this, the USA and the EU have agreed strong economic and other measures which reflect the seriousness of the situation, and the UK has backed these, with cross-party support. Yet sanctions will exacerbate the cost of living crisis here, and the government will need to take further steps to support people on lower incomes in areas like ours by taxing the wealthy and targeting tax-havens.

In this effort, they should start with instant action against the Russian oligarchs, some of them linked to Putin, who have been able to leverage power in the UK. The Conservative Party has almost become the ‘Russian party’, accepting millions from rich Russians, including from the wife of one of Putin’s ex-ministers. Johnson has even put one Russian oligarch - in whose Tuscan villa he notoriously partied - in the House of Lords. Our capital city has been mocked as ‘Londongrad’, since for over a decade the government has allowed corrupt Russian interests to launder their money here, while British banks and law firms serviced their activities.

Johnson is now putting on a show of concern about all of this, but without a real sense of urgency. Russian billionaires’ assets have been seized in other countries but here they have been given time to hide them. I doubt that Ukrainians on the receiving end of Putin’s missiles will be impressed. Only very quick and determined action, with measures that go well beyond what has so far been agreed, is likely to deter him from completing his destruction of Ukraine.