Tick-box Britain has failed Ukrainian refugees

We already know, as the war in eastern Ukraine intensifies, that Britain has led the world in providing military and humanitarian aid, sanctions and global leadership. But it is time to reckon with the fact that these achievements have been seriously undermined by the treatment of Ukrainian refugees. 

Around 5 million people have fled the war-torn country. Most are heading to neighbouring countries, but others, especially those with connections to Britain, are attempting to make their way here.

We initially offered visas only to direct family members. Officials turned people back at Calais with no on-the-ground support. Refugees were told to visit far-off application centres in-person, only to arrive and find them closed. The “Homes for Ukraine” scheme was meant to solve this problem, allowing Brits to offer up their homes. But this scheme has been held back by a sclerotic bureaucracy, over-centralisation, and health and safety zealots. 

Ukrainians were required to complete a complex 51-page application, including a question asking whether you are a war criminal. They had to find a named sponsor through online groups, which predictably resulted in reports of men demanding sex for accommodation, while some generous Britons who handed over personal details to Ukrainians were scammed. 

Britons who wished to host a refugee were required to meet draconian standards in order for their property to qualify. Some were then inspected by judicious council-appointed health and safety auditors who took an excessively precautionary approach.

The inspectors rejected homes on the basis of improper windows, inconvenient positioning of plug sockets, and for using the wrong type of plaster in a ceiling. Others were told to get their boiler serviced and to update their electrics and lighting. It seemed they preferred to leave someone at the prey of Russian artillery and death squads than face a British home with an internal glass door or bare floorboards. 

We are used to the dysfunction and cluelessness of the Home Office. On this, though, it seemed that the entire British state had geared up to impose Kafkaesque tyranny on Ukrainian refugees. Grants have been made through councils rather than directly to individuals, and there have been reports of “data loss” involving offers from people for their homes in the early days of the scheme. 

Most disheartening of all, the generosity of many Britons has been wasted. Over 200,000 signed up to host a Ukrainian refugee. Yet the actual number of Ukrainian arrivals remains miniscule by comparison. And while some others have come through the family reunification pathway, the slow processing time – visas are taking at least three to four weeks – has left families returning to war-torn Ukraine to avoid homelessness. 

This heavy-handed approach sits in stark contrast with our neighbours. The European Union immediately offered Ukrainians the ability to live and work in the bloc for up to three years without any prior paperwork. Refugees have been met at train stations and paired on-the-spot with volunteers, or found accommodation through civil society efforts and Airbnb. There is no good reason that Britain could not similarly process people on arrival.

Frankly, the entire affair speaks to the British state’s failure to embrace freedom in the post-Brexit, post-Covid era. Rather than becoming a more flexible country, we are entangling businesses and individuals in unnecessary red tape at every turn. Even when ministers want to take a more liberal approach, be it on GDPR or Ukrainian refugees, the bureaucracy moves at a snail’s pace. In other cases, like the Online Safety Bill, we are opting for the most authoritarian approach in the democratic world.

The mistreatment of the Ukrainian people in their moment of dire need is just the latest example of our addiction to unnecessary bureaucracy. I fear it won’t be the last. 

Matthew Lesh is the head of public policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs

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