The gaping hole in that record, however, has been its offer to Ukrainian refugees. Last summer’s experience with evacuating Afghans fleeing the Taliban takeover should have helped work the kinks out of a process that is cumbersome, confusing and often leads to no man’s land. And yet, the kinks are the point of it.
Immigration has long been a sore area for this government. Having won the Brexit wars in part by stoking anti-immigration sentiment, its knee-jerk reaction is to remind people just what good border guards Britain’s elected leaders have proven to be. Especially when it comes to stopping boatloads of migrants, public opinion has supported the government, even when the result has been tragic.
There are currently about 100,000 people waiting for asylum applications to be processed, 60% more than in 2020. The majority have no right to work and must subsist on just over 5.66 pounds ($7.56) a day for food and other necessities. Home Secretary Priti Patel, who is popular with some key voter groups the Tories need to win elections, wears the injustices of Britain’s asylum policy like a badge of honor.
And yet those fleeing Ukraine, mostly women and children, could not be a more obvious example of the whole reason the 1951 United Nations refugee convention was created. While Europe has flung open its borders to Ukrainians, Britain’s initial reaction was notable for its stinginess. Asylum-seekers could apply for a six-month visa to pick fruit if they could find no other way in, tweeted junior minister Kevin Foster (later deleted). One cartoonist depicted Patel shouting into a burning building asking a Ukrainian-flag holding woman if she’s willing to pick fruit.
Fierce criticism forced the government to come up with something better. During a visit to Poland this week, Johnson announced the much-criticized family reunification program would be expanded so that up to 200,000 Ukrainians could benefit. Companies and individuals could sponsor refugees. Normal requirements for a minimum salary threshold or language requirements would be waived.
The revised policy is indeed generous by U.K. standards and far better than fleeing Afghans have received. But the visa-based system certainly makes it harder for Ukrainians to claim asylum. Daniel Sohege, a specialist in refugee policy, says the Home Office helpline has not been updated so lawyers have no way to advise people on the new scheme. It also requires Ukrainians being able to access a place where their visa requests can be processed; long queues, delays and application denials are common at these facilities.
The government’s new Nationality and Borders Bill could also make things tough for any Ukrainians who manage to get to Britain without a visa. It seeks to criminalize those who arrive and claim asylum by creating a two-tier asylum system. The House of Lords voted for a series of amendments, but it remains to be seen whether the government will accept them.
There is nothing theoretical about the refugee crisis. More than a million Ukrainians have fled the war to the EU; projections are for as many as 4 million refugees. But Britain need not fear a mass refugee influx. Kyiv is 1,325 miles from London, and most Ukrainians are likely to want to stay closer to home, where they enjoy visa-free travel anyhow. On Thursday, EU member states are expected to adopt the so-called temporary protection directive that would allow Ukrainians to stay in the bloc beyond the 90-day limit, receive a residence permit and the right to work and education.
On a selfish level, the U.K. — with its aging work force and labor shortages — has much to gain from taking in refugees from political turmoil in Hong Kong and the war in Ukraine, who are largely educated and skilled.
In many ways, Johnson – who only weeks ago fighting for his political life and under attack from many of his own MPs – is made for this moment. The prime minister’s speeches and statements have captured the shock and anger of a nation and the growing recognition that this is a moment of historic importance for the free world. Johnson also possesses a keen sense of history and an ability to see the big picture, even if his way with words has too often been put to the service of lesser aims.
But yoked to a cause bigger than careerism or playing for laughs, it’s powerful stuff. Crises strip away artifice and reveal the hearts of leaders, just as historic moments shape a country’s national narrative. There really can be no greater test of a nation’s heart right now than its willingness to provide refuge for those fleeing Europe’s worst act of aggression since World War II. Johnson should take a keen interest in ensuring that Britain’s policy falls on the right side of history.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Ukraine Sees Bad Omens in Putin’s Assault on Syria: Ruth Pollard
• Ukraine Is Helping Europe Smash Some Taboos: Lionel Laurent
• All Is Not Quiet on Putin’s Home Front: Clara Ferreira Marques
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.