Russia’s full-scale invasion of neighbouring Ukraine means Europe is now experiencing its bloodiest military conflict since the Second World War – which is in turn creating a refugee crisis on the continent.
Huge numbers of Ukrainians have already fled their homeland to neighbouring Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova. A recent United Nations estimate suggests that around 368,000 refugees have left Ukraine since the Russians invaded last Thursday. The number of refugees is only likely to increase as Russian military forces continue with their efforts to take control of key Ukrainian cities and overthrow the democratically elected government in Kyiv.
While the UK has provided Ukraine with impressive levels of military and medical supplies, as well as playing an integral part in pushing for stricter financial sanctions against the Kremlin, it must not be left wanting over Ukrainian refugees. The UK government has been facing growing calls to waive visa rules for Ukrainians seeking sanctuary in Britain – including those who have family members in places such as London, Greater Manchester and West Yorkshire. Both Labour and the Scottish National Party have encouraged the Conservative government to follow the example of the Republic of Ireland, which has waived all visa requirements for all Ukrainian citizens entering the country.
In recent times, the UK has established a number of refugee resettlement schemes – Syrian citizens fleeing civil war, Hongkongers escaping from Chinese-state tyranny and Afghans looking to avoid persecution under the Taliban. While Boris Johnson has said that people who are settled in the UK will be able to bring their Ukrainian immediate family members to join them, the Home Office has so far resisted calls to establish a bespoke safe route – previously saying Ukrainians fleeing the war should get visas to work and study in the UK through the points-based immigration system.
At the moment, the UK is falling well short. According to some estimates, up to 5 million Ukrainians could be driven from their homes. However open-hearted the response from Ukraine’s neighbours, they cannot be expected to shoulder the resettlement effort on their own. International co-operation – with Britain in the lead – will be needed to manage sudden increases in the number of Ukrainians forced to flee. It is imperative that our government responds with a well-funded bespoke resettlement scheme – working with local councils across Britain to rehome Ukrainians in need of sanctuary.
This resettlement scheme should prioritise those who are most at risk in the event of Russian occupation and Kremlin-led persecution. This includes pro-democracy Ukrainian politicians, academics and social activists who have a proven track record of promoting Ukraine’s integration into the Western political and security order (and distancing their country from the Kremlin’s desired ‘sphere of influence’).
Ukraine’s non-Orthodox Catholic and Protestant minorities are also at risk of persecution by Russian (and pro-Russian) forces. The head of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the United States, Archbishop Borys Gudziak, has stated that a “Russian occupation will, without a doubt, bring persecution to the Ukrainian Catholic Church”. Notable Catholic populations in Lviv Oblast and Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast could be especially vulnerable if the Kremlin makes considerable headway in western Ukraine.
There is also the breathtaking irony of what a Russian invasion launched under the pretext of ‘de-Nazification’ may mean for Ukraine’s Jewish population – including President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Drawing inspiration from all-too-familiar antisemitic tropes, in a 2021 article, former Russian president Dmitry Medvedev denounced Zelenskyy as ‘disgusting, corrupt and faithless’. With the Russian invasion ultimately focused on seizing Ukraine’s major cities, it is worth noting that the country’s most significant Jewish populations are based in Kyiv, Dnipro, Kharkiv and Odessa. There is also the relentless persecution and rampant anti-Muslim prejudice faced by Crimean Tatars, many of whom opposed to Russia’s 2014 annexation of their region.
It is vitally important the UK government is aware of the scale of the threat to social and political groups most at risk of Kremlin-led persecution in Ukraine. Much like how it has established a resettlement scheme for Afghans, it should establish one for Ukrainian citizens that prioritises pro-democracy/anti-Kremlin politicians, activists and academics – especially those who belong to non-Orthodox religious minorities who are at particular risk.
As well as providing comprehensive support to Ukraine’s neighbouring countries which are having to cope with a constant flow of refugees, the UK government must step up to the plate and lead international efforts to provide sanctuary for Ukrainian citizens.
As its stands, the UK government’s positioning on Ukrainian refugees is simply not up to scratch.
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