Time to waive the visas – and revisit the Nationality and Borders Bill

Image courtesy of the #WaiveTheVisas campaign

Insistence on complex visa requirements is in stark contrast to the outpouring of empathy for Ukrainian refugees by people in Britain. A government that promised it would cut ‘red tape’ is now using bureaucracy in the cruellest of ways, writes Tom Scott.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, films and TV series set in Nazi-occupied Europe (of which there were many) would almost always feature a scene in which the hero or heroine – French resistance fighter, British POW on the run, Jewish person fleeing the SS – was confronted with a dour German official demanding: “Papiere, Bitte!” (papers, please).

This threatening officiousness was seen as a defining feature of authoritarian states. And many Brits of my generation have, I think, an instinctive feeling that, whatever its faults, at least Britain is culturally resistant to becoming a ‘papers, please’ society.

I know from European friends who have settled in the UK that they too have seen the relative lack of insistence on official documentation as a peculiarly British thing. My friend Anita, from the Netherlands, was pleasantly astonished that she didn’t need to register as a foreign resident when she moved with her family to Cornwall a few years ago.

Sadly, Brexit has changed things for people like Anita. And even before Brexit, the experience of people arriving in Britain as refugees has typically been very different. Anyone seeking to claim asylum has to provide a welter of paperwork, including passports and travel documents, police registration certificates, identification documents, birth and marriage certificates… They also have to be able to show that they have not travelled to the UK through a ‘safe third country’, and do not have a connection to such a country where they could claim asylum.

Naturally, many people fleeing from chaotic war zones, whether in Ukraine, Afghanistan or Syria, are not in possession of such documents.

It has not always been like this. Before the 20th century, Britain had a long history of welcoming – or at least tolerating – refugees, including Protestant Huguenots from France in the 17th century and Russian Jews escaping pogroms in the 19th century.

When the First World War broke out, some 250,000 refugees from Belgium arrived on our shores, most of them in the first few weeks of the war. On a single day in 1914, 16,000 of these disembarked in Folkestone. Very large numbers of them had no passports, let alone entry visas.

Belgium’s resistance to Germany’s aggression was seen in rather the same way as Ukraine’s struggle against Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is seen now, and King Albert I, who personally led the Belgian army, was viewed as a heroic figure somewhat akin to President Zelenskyy.

‘Unconquerable’ – a painting of Albert I of Belgium by Bernard Partridge (1914). Out of copyright

There was huge public sympathy for Belgians fleeing the German war machine. A War Refugees Committee was set up to coordinate relief work and made a public appeal for accommodation. Within two weeks it had received 100,000 offers from people who wanted to put up refugees in their own homes. All across the country, local refugee aid committees – some 2,500 of them – sprang up to help. When groups of refugees arrived to take up residence in local towns, they were often greeted by cheering crowds.

I don’t want to suggest that everything was easy for these refugees. As the war wore on and life became harder for Britain’s civilian population, frictions and resentment arose. And at the end of the war, most of these people were summarily deported back to their homeland, even if they had begun to set down roots here.

But the outpouring of generosity and hospitality was real, and for a time at least it was matched by an open-heartedness on the part of the government. Belgian refugees were given a haven in their hour of desperate need, without any need to show entry visas or to prove that they could not have taken refuge in a ‘safe third country’.

Fast forward 108 years, and the situation for Ukrainian refugees seeking refuge in Britain is similar in one way but very different in others. Although the British people have shown the same surge of empathy, our government’s attitude, beneath the rhetoric, is very different.

More than 150,000 people have now signed up to provide space in their homes for refugees under the government’s ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme since this was announced with a fanfare by Michael Gove two weeks ago. Yet, as of today, only around 1,000 people have actually made it to the UK under this scheme according to Will Quince, minister for children and families.

To be admitted to the UK under the sponsorship scheme, Ukrainian refugees have to apply for a special visa, with support from an individual sponsor. So far, fewer than one in ten such visa applications have been approved. In a letter to The Times on Monday, the heads of the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Save the Children and Oxfam warned that the visa system was causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians:

“Those who want to come to the UK are having to navigate a complex web of bureaucratic paperwork to get visas, leaving them facing protracted delays without any information about the status of their application.”

Robina Qureshi, director of Positive Action in Housing, a charity that runs the long-running refugee hosting programme Room for Refugees, has described the forms involved in the Ukrainian sponsorship scheme as “tortuous and confusing – with no guideline”. She is also scathing about the government’s failure to set up a functioning system to put refugees in touch with sponsors, which she says is leading many desperate refugees to resort to potentially dangerous routes:

“Unaccompanied minors, young women, women with young children, have told us they met someone on social media who offered to be a sponsor under Homes for Ukraine. A Ukrainian mother said she was sending her teenage sons, one of whom is autistic, alone to make the journey to the UK from Ukraine. Another woman told us that she would leave Kharkiv now if the UK government offered a visa, but she is waiting in her home terrified.

“Refugees are turning to wholly unsafe methods of getting here, meeting people in Facebook groups, on social media. And this Government is responsible for giving people false hope and putting them further in the way of danger.”

This attitude on the part of our government is not, unfortunately, an aberration. It reflects the same mean-minded spirit that animates the Nationality and Borders Bill, described by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants as

“an attack on the fundamental principles of refugee protection” which “will see more asylum seekers thrown in prison, held in detention centres, removed to other countries – and if they ever manage to get refugee status, they will have fewer rights”.

Three weeks ago, the House of Lords introduced a series of amendments to the Nationalities and Borders Bill that were designed to remove some of its cruellest aspects and prevent the government from criminalising refugees. These amendments were then voted down by Conservative MPs when the Bill returned to the Commons last week. It will return to the Lords on 4 April.

Recent polling by Savanta ComRes suggests that the Conservative Party is badly misjudging the public mood: it found that 60 per cent of British people would support the waiving of visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees, with only 15 per centactively opposing this. And support for waiving visas is strong across supporters of all parties, with even 59 per cent of Conservative voters supporting such a move.

Are Ukrainian refugees a special case, and would the public support a more welcoming attitude to people fleeing other war zones and murderous regimes? This is not something that was covered by the polling, but it’s more than possible that the intensive coverage being given to Putin’s horrific war may have opened people’s eyes to the reasons why people are so often driven to leave behind everything they know and love.

Waiving visa requirements for those forced to flee Ukraine would at a stroke allow many desperate people to benefit from the kindness that so many of us in Britain wish to show.

But the Ukraine crisis should also prompt the government to revisit a Bill that embodies not kindness but wanton bureaucratic cruelty. Most people in Britain do not want to see our country move towards a ‘papers, please’ society where red tape is used to strangle the basic human urge to help one another.

Kindness, unlike Priti Patel’s vicious plan to criminalise people seeking asylum, has no borders.

A version of this piece also appears in Green World.

If you’d like to join the campaign to #WaiveTheVisas and revisit the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Green Party has produced a pack of campaign materials, here.