Show caption ‘Mobilising the goodwill and spare rooms of the British public was a neat idea in theory that gets untidy on inspection of practicalities.’ Refugees and volunteers at the Medyka crossing on the Ukraine-Poland border, 31 March 2022. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images Opinion ‘Homes for Ukraine’ is just a slogan – as I found out by trying to welcome a refugee Rafael Behr Britain’s flagship scheme for matching hosts with refugees is another of the government’s inflated promises – and equally empty @rafaelbehr Tue 5 Apr 2022 17.08 BST Share on Facebook
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A policy of indifference to the plight of Ukrainian refugees would be morally repugnant, but honest. Millions fleeing the criminal butchery of Vladimir Putin’s army would be told that they were not welcome in Britain and should seek sanctuary elsewhere.
That is not the UK government line. Instead, something more insidious has taken shape – a device for mixing the desperation of displaced people with hospitality offered by the British public, and feeding both into a bureaucratic mangle so every drop of uncertainty and dread can be wrung out. That is the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
Making pain from generosity is an innovation in nastiness that no single Whitehall department could achieve. It takes a special failure of collaboration involving Michael Gove’s Levelling Up department, Priti Patel’s Home Office and the special ingredient – Boris Johnson’s delinquent inattention to detail.
The scheme was launched on 14 March after Downing Street realised that public opinion was appalled by the absence of a fast track for Ukrainian refugees. Gove told MPs that British people, having “opened their hearts”, would also “open their homes”. But Patel held the keys.
By the end of the month, 32,200 applications had been made, and only 4,700 visas issued. Those numbers describe the contours of a bottleneck. They cannot convey what happens inside the bottle, the desperate lives pressed against its glass edges, the slow suffocation of promises, the frightened look back at scenes of cold-blooded massacre and other atrocities in a homeland under threat of genocide.
About 4.2 million refugees have fled Ukraine, with a further 6.5 million internally displaced. One is supposed to be staying with my family in Brighton. We made contact via friends of friends. As sponsors, we helped apply for a visa. The case is now suspended in an administrative void with thousands of others. Just to reach that stage requires navigating an online system that could be the hardest level in a Kafka-themed video game. And you need a computer and a stable internet connection, which are not always available to refugees.
We send what reassurance we can into the blackout, to faces made pale by the light of a phone screen and by fear of Russian missiles. What to say? There is a good news story about the system as it is meant to work. Then there is reality, gleaned from conversations with MPs, charities, local government and Whitehall officials.
There are delays at every junction. Documents uploaded online seem not to be appearing in the UK visa service database. Those applications aren’t even in limbo. They are in the antechamber before limbo. Once across the threshold they enter the “hostile environment” – the notorious Home Office apparatus for limiting numbers of people entering Britain. I am assured that this machine is being repurposed to maximise permissions for Ukrainians, but the infrastructure of rejection is not easily reassembled.
The department’s watchword is security, which means presuming that anyone crossing the border without a British passport is up to no good – fraud, espionage, terrorism. Visas can only be issued once the relevant checks are carried out using a limited number of specialised computers. It all takes time. Desperate mothers and traumatised children are not above suspicion.
The default to mistrust is hardly new. Fear of admitting jihadist interlopers stalks the processing of Syrian and Afghan asylum claims. Even in the second world war, some Jewish refugees from the Third Reich were interned in British prisons because they were citizens of Germany or Austria. The extreme unlikelihood of Jews harbouring secret allegiance to Hitler was not taken into account.
Meanwhile, the rest of Whitehall is grappling with the fierce complexity of an open-ended refugee settlement programme that was just a website when Gove declared it open. British sponsors finding their own matches with Ukrainian refugees is just phase one. The scheme will then be expanded “rapidly” to include charities, churches and community groups.
That upscaling process is happening mostly in circumvention of the Home Office, deemed more an obstacle than a partner. Mobilising the goodwill and spare rooms of the British public was a neat idea in theory that gets untidy on inspection of practicalities. The task falls mostly to local councils, which have to worry about host suitability, standards of accommodation, school places for children who might also need support for trauma. There will be pressure on services that are already rationed by budget cuts.
Refugee charities worry about what happens to new arrivals whose sponsors are disqualified or pull out. What happens when support payments for hosts expire after six months? Already there is a problem of bogus sponsorship by human traffickers and other predators using the government’s vague promise of welcome as cover to harvest victims for exploitation. Such are the gaps in ministerial thinking that civil servants, councillors and voluntary groups are frantically trying to plug. Privately, they say the scheme is more gap than substance – a Potemkin policy launched to dispel bad headlines, with nothing behind it. “Not thought-through” is the phrase I keep hearing.
In other words, the policy for Ukrainian refugees is exactly like every other policy of Johnson’s government. There was a moment of political urgency, a humanitarian crisis that stirred the nation’s conscience. Alarm bells rang in Downing Street, where public opinion must serve as proxy for conscience. The prime minister wanted the ringing to stop. A plan was hatched; not so much a plan as an idea. Barely an idea; a slogan: “Homes for Ukraine”.
Then someone has to deliver the plan. The rhetoric must somehow be lifted off the page, propped up in three dimensions, spread across departments, filled with resources. By then the news caravan has moved on and Downing Street’s focus is elsewhere.
Johnson is clearly enjoying his status as a friend of Ukraine. The emergency has lifted his spirits by relegating domestic scandal down the news running order. But the prime minister’s friendships are always lopsided. He is interested in the rugged soldierly face of war and the new-edition “Boris” action figure in khaki. The complex long-term needs of refugees are less his thing. They can be someone else’s problem, which he sees as a problem solved.
Except these are people’s lives, their hopes. The pledges that have been made to them come not from ministers but from ordinary citizens who are trying to do a decent thing and thought, naively, that the government could help. Now they feel like accomplices in a grotesque hoax of unfathomable cruelty. It is not news that Johnson lets people down. It is one of the constants of his career. Everyone is betrayed in the end. But, with help from an incompetent cabinet, he has outdone himself with the offer to make Britain a place of sanctuary to Ukrainian refugees. Having run out of his own pledges to break, he has stooped to purloining promises from the public and breaking those too.
Rafael Behr is a Guardian columnist