Diane Abbott MP: The government should be more like the British people when it comes to welcoming refugees

'Ministers have offered delay, misdirection, legalism and conditionality. By contrast the public has offered concern, donations, and some are even willing to open their homes'.


Diane Abbott is the Labour MP for Hackney North and Stoke Newington

The Ukraine refugee crisis has exposed a glaring contradiction between the response of the Tory government and the generosity of the British people.

Ministers have offered delay, misdirection, legalism and conditionality. By contrast the public has offered concern, donations, and some are even willing to open their homes.

Having previously directed asylum seekers from the Ukraine to a non-existent ‘processing centre’ in Calais, the government than switched to a secretive and barely-open centre in Lille. At no point were the needs of the refugees themselves put first.

In contrast, members of the public have literally donated millions of pounds. And some are willing to be even more generous.

Some of us have long argued that the various refugee or migrant crises are entirely fictional. We said that these panics were manufactured by ministers desperate to distract from the effects of their own terrible policies. In this they were strongly and repeatedly aided by sections of the press.

For geopolitical reasons, campaigns demonising refugees from the Ukraine are almost completely absent in this crisis. As a result, the natural generosity of large sections of the public easily wins through.  We should hear no more of ‘legitimate concerns about migrants and refugees’, which is simply prettifying the reactionary government campaigns, aided by the tabloids.

Yet, absence of malice is not proof of fairness. The government is yet to offer any terms for refugees fleeing Ukraine that could in any way be described as generous. Like everyone who is forced to leave their home, the plight of refugees fleeing the Ukraine crisis is a desperate one.

The Home Secretary falsely claims that special provisions have been made when there are no significant provisions for Ukrainians at all.  Of course, this highlights a systematic problem with the response to refugees as a whole, a system which is not fit for purpose.

The new Nationality Bill enshrines in law the further mistreatment of asylum-seekers and refugees, and conflates all these with migrants in general. It is so draconian it is possible now that government policy may not even comply with international law.

Other countries, much poorer than Britain have offered effectively an open door to refugees from the Ukraine. This ought to be the standard response in all such conflicts.

However, the treatment of Black and other ethnic minority people trying to flee Ukraine, is so harsh that the Nigerian president, Muhammadu Buhari has publicly complained about the treatment of Africans trying to flee, as has the UNHCR.

This is in line with the treatment by many countries, including this one, of migrants long before the Ukraine conflict. It is a right in international law for people to seek asylum. There is therefore no such thing as an ‘illegal asylum seeker’. It is the denial of people’s right to seek asylum that is illegal.

Yet it is reported that 19 people have died in the forests on the border between Belarussia and Poland. They have effectively frozen and starved to death as they attempted to enter Poland. These people are asylum seekers mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. 

In addition, it is sporadically reported that there is a huge disparity between the treatment of Ukrainian refugees and those from Western and Central Asia, as well as of African people who are forced to flee.

This government has long treated all those fleeing desperate situations in completely inhumane ways. The government even boasts of it. Unlike most other countries, even rights to family reunion are limited, so that children 18 years old and over cannot be reunited with their families, as they are no longer deemed to be ‘immediate family’ members.

The latest innovation is the sponsorship of refugees by private groups and individuals, the outsourcing of basic humanity. I look forward to Tory MPs making the first move. Perhaps they could use the funds they received from the Russian oligarchs to pay for the sponsorships.

Instead, it is an obligation under international law for the State to accept asylum-seekers and to allow all legitimate claimants refuge. The government must meet its legal and moral obligation to all refugees.

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