On the night of February 23, a Russian programmer was online with friends from Moscow. They warned him to leave Berdyansk immediately. Until the last minute, the Ukrainians never believed that this war was going to start.
Denis* stayed up all night, then woke up his Ukrainian wife, packed his bags and drove to Kyiv, thinking he would be safe from attack.
A few days later, Berdyansk was seized by the Russians as Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, all European countries – except the UK – lifted border restrictions as five million refugees poured into neighboring countries.
On March 14, Housing Secretary Michael Gove launched “Homes for Ukraine”, offering British residents £350 a month to sponsor Ukrainians.
Hundreds of sponsors have called our office to obtain names of Ukrainian refugees.
We refused. Tens of thousands of people have taken to social media to “find each other”.
Less than a week later, Europol issued an early notification warning about human traffickers collecting information about potential victims on social media. A government department put refugees: women, youth and unaccompanied minors at risk of trafficking or abuse.
Visa requirements should never be imposed on people fleeing war, as it forces them to wait for documents in case of danger.
The British government held people back by making the process complicated and slow.
We therefore advise people to head for Ireland, if they are under bombardment. Ireland is taking a pragmatic approach and letting people in, including unaccompanied minors who are banned from sponsorship in the UK.
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Over 1,000 families, individuals and young people from Ukraine have registered with us to find trusted sponsors.
We found ourselves in the odious position of assessing people inside war zones and identifying safe exit routes.
With over two decades of matching guests to sponsors, we have created a new system to help people leaving Ukraine. Each day brought new demands and a renewed sense of urgency for our small team.
On April 4, Denis messaged me asking for help. They were trapped in their apartment in Kyiv for 40 days, under constant bombardment. Nataliiya* was afraid to enter a shelter because of Denis’ Russian nationality.
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They prepared to die. With volunteers, we have identified safe routes.
Thanks to a former RAF officer, they have reached Poland and are now awaiting British visas.
We have found ways to provide information, for example to young people and parents forced to send unaccompanied minors. An online support group for 250 Ukrainian families provides advice on UK visas, routes to Ireland and safe sponsors.
When Ukrainians demanded safe passage for their cats, dogs, guinea pigs and parrots, the Interior Ministry immediately issued guidelines.
Last month, 44 refugees drowned off the coast of Spain. In 2021, 4,400, including 205 children, died crossing from Africa to Spain, according to the NGO Caminando Fronteras, which tracks data from boats in distress.
European efforts to block Mediterranean routes are the cause. More than 95% of the dead never leave the water.
There have been reports of fishermen throwing captured human body parts into their nets in the Mediterranean to avoid paperwork.
The International Organization for Migration has described 2021 as the deadliest for trans-European migration since 2018.
More than 8,500 asylum seekers intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard have been returned. Marines have largely withdrawn from search and rescue, and NGOs (non-governmental organizations) trying to help refugees – despite bureaucratic hurdles – are struggling to maintain a presence at sea.
At least 1,315 people died in the central Mediterranean, while 41 lives were lost on the land border between Turkey and Greece. In November 2021, 27 refugees, including a pregnant woman and three children, drowned trying to cross the English Channel.
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These people did not choose to drown. It seems that if you have brown skin, it was your “choice” to leave, so it’s your fault if you drown. And if you enter the UK, the government will send you to Rwanda.
Asylum seekers already here live in such terror of being sent to Rwanda that they are reduced to mute submission, refusing to complain about the oppressive conditions they endure in hotels, guesthouses and the barracks managed by subcontractors of the Ministry of the Interior.
Getting people to talk is almost impossible.
On April 22, I heard from Saeed*, a young Syrian man who has been surviving on £8 a week in a hotel in northern Scotland, alongside 100 other single men for seven months.
He said: “My solicitor is 200 miles away in Glasgow. I’ve never met her and it’s not easy to explain my situation to someone I’ve never met. We are in a hotel and they can easily move us quickly. So I try not to draw attention to myself.
“Being Muslim or having brown skin is quite difficult in this hotel. Seriously ill people are not referred to the NHS or interpreters. They humiliate us by saying that our needs are ridiculous (a jacket to protect against the cold).
“A charity provided us with desktop computers, but hotel staff have trained cameras on them and sit behind us while we type in passwords. So they see everything.
“With this Rwandan plan, are they going to send us there and leave us? We’re too scared to complain. I think my heart is going to explode from thinking too much.”
UK asylum policy is discriminatory and racist. Discriminatory in that Ukrainians seeking safe passage to the UK face bureaucratic hurdles that do not need to be cleared in EU states. This renders ministerial pretensions of doing the right thing meaningless.
Of course, for refugees fleeing persecution from elsewhere, there is not even a bureaucratic system to navigate, there is a presumption that someone is an economic migrant and is degraded by an inhumane system that threatens some to be deported to Rwanda.
Of course, if you’re a person of color, that’s almost certainly your fate.
It’s as if the racism of the old colonial ways had turned into a refugee policy that would put a German government or the French government or any administration in Scandinavia to shame.
Like a sensitive, rights-based system for dealing with the persecuted, the UK is a pariah state.
Our job in this next phase of cruelty is to testify and intervene where we can.
Robina Qureshi is Executive Director of Positive Action in Housing.
*Names have been changed to prevent identification.