Ukrainian Refugees and ‘small boat’ Asylum seekers

Eamon Dyas

By the end of July 2022, the U.K. government had estimated that 104,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the UK in the previous 5 months. [See: ]

By the 24th of August 2022 data compiled by the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford showed that over 115,200 Ukrainian refugees were officially living in the UK. [See: ]

By the end of September, according to The Telegraph that figure had risen to 134,200 Ukrainian refugees being accommodated in the UK. [See: 134,200 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in the UK – now what?, The Telegraph, 11 October, 2022]. 

Then in an article published in the Guardian on 21 January 2023 it gave a figure of “more than 150,000 Ukrainians who came to the UK under the sponsorship scheme or to stay with relatives”. [See: “Ukrainian families vent frustration at struggle to find own homes in UK”, the Guardian, 21 January, 2023]. 

So, just to put this into perspective. In the ten months since the UK began officially accommodating Ukrainians fleeing in early March 2022 these Ukrainians have been processed at the average rate of over 13,600 a month and cleared for residence in the UK by the Home Office. 

Aside from a few minor glitches the UK Government seemed to have no problem in accommodating this significant influx of people arriving in the country over a very short period of time. 

Now, let us compare this with those seeking asylum in the UK from other parts of the world. There are currently more than 100,000 asylum claims outstanding in the UK. Which is to say, that over 100,000 non-Ukrainian asylum seekers are awaiting processing by the Home Office. However, these are not asylum seekers that are about to have their claim heard at the rate provided by the Home Office for the Ukrainians. Unlike the Ukrainian asylum seekers many of these are currently waiting to have their application processed from periods of between one and two years with 96% of asylum claims from 2021 still remaining unresolved.

So, in terms of the speed in which asylum seekers are processed by the UK Home Office there is obviously a system of apartheid in operation that favours those from Ukraine. But the situation is far more inequitable than that. On 4 March, 2022, within days of the start of the Russian Special Military Operation and before it could have known what actual impact that operation would have on the citizens of Ukraine the UK Government initiated a scheme that quickly became three schemes designed to provide facilities to make it easier for Ukrainians to transit to the UK. Visa Processing Centres (VPCs) were established in Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania, and France to enable Ukrainians to quickly gain the required permission to travel to the UK by plane or any other means of transport where they had the right to live, work, or study and where they had immediate access to social welfare and health benefits. The Government made it even easier for Ukrainians to pass the entry requirement by stipulating that an international passport or any official document verifying the applicant’s identity was not even a requirement for a visa. According to the official UK Government website “It is not mandatory to provide these documents, but it may help support your application if you are able to.” [See section under “Prove your identity” at: ]. In other words, the speed and level to which the official application requirements were eased was unprecedented in comparison to the treatment of other groups of people fleeing a conflict area.

Then there was the manner in which the Government sponsored (and itself provided) homes for these refugees in many cases before they even arrived in the UK. Thousands of British people opened their homes out of feelings of sympathy engendered by the skewed reporting of the conflict by the media which based its reporting on the false claim that the whole of Ukraine was being invaded by Russian troops. Although there are undoubtedly many who experienced displacement as a result of having lived in conflict areas of country the vast mass of the area of Ukraine remained at this time free of the conflict. Therefore, the extent to which those provided with visas were genuinely displaced persons or simply those who understandably took advantage of the British Government’s offer in order to seek a better life remains unknown. 

There is of course, a difference between the normal procedure by which asylum seekers are processed for the right to remain permanently in the UK and the unique procedures established for Ukrainian refugees. The Ukrainians who have been accommodated in the UK through the three Government schemes are only provided with visas that enable them to remain in the UK for three years. But what happens after that is unclear. As the Migration Observatory says: “For all three schemes, it is not clear whether visa holders will be able to extend their stay beyond three years, or whether the visa will ever provide a pathway to settlement (permanent residence).” In fact, judging by much of what is reported on the lives of those Ukrainians currently living in the UK, it seems to be an assumption on the part of many that they will continue to remain in the UK longer than their currently allotted time. In that regard it is difficult to see how the majority of the 150,000 currently in the UK under these schemes, could be forcibly sent home, at the expiry of their permitted stay. Such a prospect becomes increasingly impractical in view of the way in which Britain and the rest of NATO continue to encourage the Ukrainian Government to persist with the war on Russia and with it the further destruction of the country until large areas of it become uninhabitable. And even if such a prospect was realistic who would want to return to a country where their future has been made untenable through the long-term instability of the region that the NATO war on Russia has generated?

But to get back to the relative treatment of asylum seekers other than the Ukrainian version by the UK Government. This is something that was further amplified by the disgraceful conditions revealed at the Dover processing centre in early 2022. After the firebombing of a separate processing centre the inhabitants were moved to the Manston Asylum Centre, also in Dover. The Manston facility is an old military base that was converted into a migrant processing centre in February 2022 (note that date) with facilities that were designed to house between 1,000 and 1,600 immigrants whose claim for asylum was meant to be processed within 24 hours. This processing was not necessarily one which at the end of it resulted in a decision to grant or deny asylum but merely to establish basic facts about the person applying. In those cases where an asylum claim is denied such people (usually those with a criminal record in their home country) are moved to immigration detention centres while they await removal from the U.K. But in the majority of cases the applicant is moved to temporary accommodation in guest houses or hotels while their claim is subjected to further investigation. The object was to complete this initial process within 24 hours and thus free up the space for the next batch of arrivals at the Manston processing centre. The Home Office claims that this cycle of arrival, checking and dispatch within 24 hours (or maybe they conceded, a bit longer), was operating quite satisfactorily for the larger part of this year. While that may or may not be true, it seems that by the end of October the Manston facility was housing around 4,000 so obviously the situation had been deteriorating for some time before then. This extreme over-crowding meant that the 4,000 people living there were having to tolerate conditions that included inadequate hot water, unsatisfactory food provision and filthy toilet conditions for those who were now having to stay there for periods long beyond the original planned-for 24 hour period. In fact, David Neal, the Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration, has highlighted one case where an Afghan family had been held at the facility for 32 days (see: Needless to say, these conditions led to many incidents of mental and physical ill health including an outbreak of diphtheria and one death. 

Because of the reported conditions at the Manston Asylum Centre the Public and Commercial Services Union and the charity Detention Action brought a legal challenge against the Home Office and on 22 November 2022 the Government announced it had closed the facility. More details of the conditions experienced by inmates and their treatment at the centre later came to light. These included the case of a young woman who complained that she had been forced to sleep on the floor in filthy and degrading conditions for 21 days near men who were strangers to her, a family with young children forced to sleep on flattened cardboard boxes with toilets overflowing with excrement and a lack of washing facilities and no clean clothes as well as several complaints of physical violence by security staff against inmates. [See: “Calls for public inquiry into abuses at Manston asylum centre in Kent”, the Guardian, 4 January, 2023]. It also emerged that 100 asylum seekers who had been held at Manston for more than the 24-hour limit had brought unlawful detention charges against the Home Office. It looks like the Home Office has since the exposure of the conditions at Manston quietly changed the rules for other facilities meant to serve a similar purpose. Under this change, from 5 January 2023 it became lawful to hold people for 96 hours rather than the previous 24 hours.

The thing about the Manston Asylum Centre was that it was designed to house a specific type of asylum seeker – those that arrived in the UK in small boats. This is something that represents a relatively new phenomenon in Britain among asylum seekers and appears to be an indirect outcome of Brexit. Previously, while the UK was part of the EU, it was easier for those seeking entry to the UK to use the regular ferry services (usually from France or Belgium) but after Brexit the process was tightened to the extent that those seeking entry were compelled in an increasing number of instances to use whatever form of transport was available and this was usually small boats. 

These small boat people are now considered the lowest class of asylum seeker at the same time as those from Ukraine are treated as a better and more deserving type of asylum seeker. The mindset associated with this categorisation is revealed in the double standards applied to them by our politicians. Addressing the House of Commons on the issue of the UK’s asylum system on 13 December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak claimed that the problem related to people who came in the small boats had come to the UK having from “relatively safe countries or travelled through safe countries”. The implication being that there was no real reason why these people should have left their homeland in the first place or that, having decided to travel, could have decided to seek asylum in another safe country that they had travelled through. That may or may not be the case. The issue here is not the relative legitimacy of these people’s motivation. The issue is the double standards that this implies when it comes to the Ukrainian version of the asylum seeker. As already indicated, if this standard of legitimacy was applied to the Ukrainians from March 2022 onwards many would have been found to have emanated from areas of Ukraine that were untouched by the war and all of them would have travelled through other intervening safe countries before they reached the UK. Likewise, Sunak claimed that the small-boat category of asylum seeker was in many cases “co-ordinated by ruthless, organised criminals”. Again, to what extent have similar corrupt agencies in Ukraine been involved in exploiting the European systems established to facilitate the Ukrainian asylum seekers? We simply do not know because it has not been politically acceptable to question anything to do with the way in which these facilities have been established and how they have been exploited but given the extent to which Ukraine has been tainted by corruption for many years such corrupt practices cannot be ruled out. 

The Government has given the figure for the number of asylum seekers arriving on UK shores in small boats in 2022 as 45,756. This means that the facilities established by the Home Office to process this particular type of asylum seeker were incapable of processing just under 46,000 such claims in a year. Hence the problems at Manston. Compare this failure with the achievement of the same Home Office in successfully processing around 150,000 Ukrainians between March and December 2022. There are calls for a public inquiry into the scandal at Manston but the possibility of such an inquiry revealing that the reasons for the failure at Manston was a direct result of the diversion of Home Office resources to the processing of Ukrainian applications might mean that such an inquiry, if it is to take place at all, would in all probability not operate to a remit that made that conclusion possible.

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