The British government set up a Secretary of State for Refugees on Tuesday March 8. A sign that London intends to manage the issue of Ukrainian refugees as well as possible, it has been placed under the double control of the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Recovery, Housing and Communities. Crucially, the post went to former Conservative MP Richard Harrington, who previously served as Under Secretary of State for Syrian Refugees in 2015 and 2016.
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This appointment came as a surprise, as the United Kingdom has not been the most welcoming country in Europe since the start of the Russian offensive. As the European Union opened its doors without restrictions to refugees from Ukraine, Boris Johnson warned that London would not have “not a system where people can enter the UK without checks or checks”. The Prime Minister nevertheless assured that the government “will be as generous as possible” and clarified that up to 200,000 Ukrainians could eventually be eligible for a visa.
10,000 applications, 500 visas granted
At the moment, two options are open to Ukrainians: having a family member already settled in the UK or being sponsored by an individual or organization. For London, these options are very generous compared to what is offered to applicants of other nationalities, who must prove their refugee status. Tuesday, “more than 500” visas were issued after receipt of “more than 10,000 requests”.
During a debate in the House of Commons on Tuesday, the Under Secretary of State in the Interior Ministry justified the government’s refusal to open its borders to all Ukrainians: “People have already come to Calais with false documents, saying they were Ukrainians. » Kevin Foster even went so far as to recall that envoys from the Kremlin had tried to assassinate former Russian spy Sergei Skripal, installed in the English countryside, four years ago in Salisbury, and that others had been poisoned, before to conclude : “The government will not take any risks with the security of the country and our people. » And to clarify that the United States, Canada and Australia “rightly adopt the same approach” than the UK.
The impression that London has lost control of its borders
These explanations alone do not explain the government’s position. The migration issue has occupied a prominent place in British politics for fifteen years. The desire of the British to control immigration was also one of the many factors in the vote in favor of Brexit. But after the Leave victory in 2016, British concerns about immigration had dissipated: many believed that leaving the EU would allow the government to control national borders. This was without taking into account the Covid-19 pandemic. The near total halt to ferry and train travel between the UK and mainland Europe has prompted foreigners wishing to enter the country without a visa to take a much more visible and dangerous route: the sea.
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While the number of illegal arrivals was lower in 2020 than in previous years, this visibility gave the impression that London had lost control of its borders. The popularity rating of Interior Minister Priti Patel and that of the government have thus suffered. Hence the need today to show firmness, even if the polls indicate that the British are largely in favor of welcoming Ukrainian refugees.
This strategy angered many opponents of the government. The leader of the Labor Party, Keir Starmer, thus insists on the need to propose “an easy route to a place of protection” and criticizes a ministry of the interior “disorganized” who “change the rules all the time”. On social networks, like many stars, the former footballer Gary Neville posted to his 5 million followers the ranking of European countries according to the number of Ukrainian refugees received. The United Kingdom is at the back of the pack.