Our impotence to act fast on Ukraine is a reminder that we haven’t just left Europe in body, we have left it in soul
The immorality of what Russia has done is clear. It’s etched on the faces of the millions of Ukrainians that have already fled and it is evidenced in the crumpled bodies of the children lying dead in the streets of cities razed to the ground.
The morality of our government’s limited response to this barbarism is less clear.
Within a matter of weeks, Ukraine, a modern European country, has slipped into what has been so vividly described as medieval times. But that doesn’t even touch the sides of the horror we are witnessing.
People, who only last month would have been going about their normal business, watching TV in their sitting rooms, warmed by their central heating, and snacking on food and drink we would all recognise, are now forced to collect snow off the streets to replace the drinking water that no longer runs from their taps.
They huddle under blankets in freezing subways for fear of attack from above. Their electricity is cut off. There is no basic sanitation. No functioning phone network. Transport is scarce. Shops are being looted. Families separated. Abandoned dogs are roaming the streets. Open fires burn on pavements where a week ago, shoppers would have been jostling for space. And women, as ever, are living in a fitful world where the fear is that, in rape or in death, they become the collateral damage of a man-made war.
And bodies are being buried in mass graves.
What’s happening in Ukraine is an obscenity.
And amid the images of dystopia, it’s hard to say when the Rubicon of the unthinkable was crossed. But it came fast, and it came hard. And within a matter of days, we have gone from tiptoeing around the words ‘military invasion’ to Putin now threatening nuclear attack and us all having to consider that what we are now witnessing is the start of another world war.
And with so-called humanitarian corridors acting in some cases as a funnel straight into Russia, offering capture rather than escape, all we can do is watch helplessly from the shores of our Brexit Britain as our prime minister stomps around European capitals like a cut-price Churchill, offering lethal weaponry and platitudes while refusing simple sanctuary.
This ongoing atrocity and our impotence to act fast and with humanity, is a salutary reminder that we haven’t just left Europe in body, we have left it in soul.
And while countries across the European Union have collectively flung open their doors offering visa-free safety for the desperate and the displaced, we have found reasons for the computer to say ‘no’.
British bureaucracy, incompetence and downright lies from a home secretary who should be ashamed, given her own backstory, have conspired once again, to reveal the nasty vein of xenophobia baked into our immigration system.
More than two million Ukrainians have already escaped this war – before it has even properly begun, but the UK has accepted just over 1,000 of them. Ireland, a twelfth of our size, has taken two and a half thousand, and the EU has instituted a visa-free scheme for three years to any Ukrainian citizen.
We, meanwhile, have been signposting refugees to apply for a visa from outside of the UK, using facilities that turned out not to be where the home secretary said they were, or in buildings that were barely open, or in locked processing centres where desperate people have waited for over three hours, in temperatures below minus three, to not then be seen, or have turned up at the one makeshift office in Calais – the major exit out across the Channel – which the BBC reported as comprising of three members of staff, a table, a box of plain salted crisps, a KitKat, and a ‘go somewhere else’ note pinned to the door.
And with excuses ranging from the potential for bad actors pretending to be Ukrainian, to the ridiculous bureaucracy demanding people fleeing conflict apply for entry in advance, and online, when they have barely had a chance to pick up a spare set of clothes, never mind a computer, everything about Britain’s immigration system is about keeping people out. No matter what their circumstance.
We even took succour from the Ukrainian president suggesting that Ukrainians would be best off staying near to home, to claim that in our reticence we were doing them a favour.
It’s now 10 years on from when the then-home secretary, Theresa May, infamously told newspapers that her aim was to create a hostile environment for illegal immigration. And that policy ambition blossomed into a hateful ideology that inculcated a much broader rancour towards migrants, no matter what their status. It helped fuel the clamour to pull up the drawbridge, take back control, and ultimately was the midwife that delivered Brexit.
No matter the human costs evidenced by the Windrush scandal, this government has been an enabler and a promoter of the rhetoric and myths that have swirled around immigration – setting arbitrary targets, fuelling unfounded fears, ratcheting up racism, and ultimately making life as uncomfortable as possible for people that do come here.
And even in war, Johnson is reverting to type.
It is telling, is it not, that this man, a man who is still under investigation for breaking his own domestic laws, was clearly less interested in the motivations of shady Russian oligarchs that came into this country snapping up multi-million-pound London properties and Highland estates, pouring their roubles into the establishment, being awarded honours, and brokering influence, than he has been in questioning the desperate motivations of those ordinary Ukrainians forced from their homes by Putin and his bullying warmongering?
What would Boris Johnson really hope to say when his young son asks him one day, what did daddy do during the war, and all he can muster is that he looked on benignly at those fleeing persecution from behind a firmly locked door?