On the night of February 23, a Russian programmer was online with friends from Moscow. They warned him to leave Berdyansk immediately. Up until the last minute, Ukrainians never believed this war would start. 

Denis* stayed up all night, then woke his Ukrainian wife, packed and drove to Kyiv, thinking it would be safe from attack.

Days later, Berdyansk was seized by Russians as Moscow launched its invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, every European country – except the UK – lifted border restrictions as five million refugees poured into neighbouring countries.
On March 14, Housing Secretary, Michael Gove launched “Homes for Ukraine”, offering UK residents £350 a month to sponsor Ukrainians.

Hundreds of sponsors called our office for names of Ukrainian refugees. 

We refused. Tens of thousands of people took to social media to “find” each other.

Less than a week later, Europol issued an early notification warning about people-traffickers gathering intelligence on potential victims on social media. A government department was putting refugees: women, young people and unaccompanied minors, at risk of trafficking or abuse.

Visa requirements should never be imposed on people fleeing war because it forces them to wait for documents while in danger.

HeraldScotland:

(Robina Qureshi)

The UK Government has held people back by making the process complicated and slow.

So we advise people to head to Ireland, if they are under bombardment. Ireland takes a pragmatic approach and lets people in, including unaccompanied minors who are barred from sponsorship in the UK.

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Over 1,000 families, individuals and young people from Ukraine registered with us to find safe sponsors. 

HeraldScotland:

We were left in the invidious position of assessing people inside war zones and identifying safe routes out.

With over two decades of matching guests to sponsors, we created a new system to help people leaving Ukraine. Each day brought new enquiries and a renewed sense of urgency for our small team.

On April 4, Denis sent me a message to ask for help. They were trapped in their Kyiv apartment for 40 days, under constant bombardment. Nataliiya* was frightened to enter a shelter because of Denis’s Russian nationality. 

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They prepared themselves to die. With volunteers, we identified safe routes.

Thanks to a former RAF officer, they reached Poland and now await UK visas.

We found ways to provide information, for example to young people and parents forced to send unaccompanied minors. An online support group for 250 Ukrainian families provides guidance on UK visas, routes to Ireland and safe sponsors. 

When Ukrainians asked for safe passage for their cats, dogs, guinea pigs and parrots, the Home Office issued guidance immediately.

Last month, 44 refugees drowned off the Spanish coast. In 2021, 4,400, including 205 children, died making the crossing from Africa to Spain, according to the NGO Caminando Fronteras, who track data from boats in distress. 

European efforts to block Mediterranean routes have caused this. More than 95 per cent of the dead never leave the water.

There have been reports of fishermen tossing human body parts caught in their nets, back into the Mediterranean, to avoid the paperwork. 

HeraldScotland:

The International Organisation for Migration described 2021 as the deadliest for trans-Europe migration since 2018. 

More than 8,500 asylum seekers intercepted by the EU-backed Libyan Coast Guard were returned. Navies have largely withdrawn from search and rescue, and NGOs (non-governmental organisations) trying to help refugees – despite bureaucratic hurdles – struggle to maintain a presence at sea. 

At least 1,315 have died in the central Mediterranean, while 41 lives were lost at the land border between Turkey and Greece. In November 2021, 27 refugees, including a pregnant woman and three children, drowned while trying to cross the Channel.

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These people did not choose to drown. It seems that if you’re brown-skinned, it was your “choice” to leave so it’s your fault if you drown. And if you enter the UK, the Government will send you to Rwanda.

Asylum seekers already here live in such terror of being sent to Rwanda they are reduced to mute compliance, refusing to complain about the oppressive conditions they endure in hotels, guest houses and barracks run by Home Office contractors.

Getting people to speak up is almost impossible.

On April 22, I heard from Saeed*, a young Syrian man who has been surviving on £8 a week in a hotel in the north of Scotland, alongside 100 other single men for the past seven months.

He said: “My lawyer is 200 miles away in Glasgow. I’ve never met her and it’s not easy to explain my situation to someone I’ve never met. We are in a hotel and they can easily move us quickly. So I try not to draw attention to myself. 

HeraldScotland:

“To be a Muslim or have a brown skin is quite difficult in this hotel. People who are seriously ill are not referred to the NHS or interpreters. They humiliate us, saying our needs are ridiculous (a jacket to keep out the cold). 

“One charity gave us desktops but the hotel staff have cameras trained on them and sit behind us as we type in passwords. So they see everything.

"With this Rwanda plan, are they going to send us there and leave us? We are too scared to complain. I think my heart will explode from over-thinking”.

The UK’s asylum policy is discriminatory and racist. Discriminatory in that Ukrainians seeking safe passage to the UK have bureaucratic hurdles that don’t need to be jumped in EU states. It renders meaningless ministerial claims about doing the right thing.

Of course for refugees who flee persecution from elsewhere, there isn’t even a bureaucratic system to navigate, there is a presumption that someone is an economic migrant and is degraded by an inhumane system that threatens some with deportation to Rwanda. 

Of course if you are a person of colour, this is almost certainly your fate. 

It’s like the racism of the old colonial ways has morphed in the form of a policy on refugees which would shame a German government or the French government or any administration in Scandinavia.  

In the manner of a sensitive, rights-based system to deal with the persecuted, the UK is a pariah state.

Our work in this next phase of cruelty is to bear witness and intervene where we can.
 
Robina Qureshi is Chief Executive of Positive Action in Housing.

* Names have been changed to prevent identification.