Human Rights Law and Refugees: The Legal Implications of War in Ukraine
Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February 2022, more than three million Ukrainian refugees have fled their home. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around half of those are children. These children have joined the 26.4 million refugees currently living across the globe. This is a humanitarian crisis and the burden of ensuring the safety of these displaced people lies on the shoulders of other countries. The situation is expected to worsen; the European Commission projects that seven million Ukranians will be displaced by the invasion in the coming weeks and that the invasion will further affect eighteen million of the country’s citizens.
Russia has withdrawn from the human rights body of the Council of Europe, meaning that the country is no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights. This act of withdrawal is a demonstration of Putin’s refusal to acknowledge international law. Secretary-General of Amnesty International, Agnès Callamard, stated:
“it is frightening to imagine what scale the refugee crisis could reach in the event of escalating hostilities in Ukraine. It will be a continent-wide humanitarian disaster with millions of refugees seeking protection in neighbouring European countries”.
With the refugee crisis worsening, it is vital to assess how European nations are attempting to help.
The United Kingdom’s response to the crisis has posed Ukrainian refugees with many obstacles to attaining legal asylum. Recent Conservative governments have implemented policies deterring refugees from coming to the UK for years and, therefore, the response to events in Ukraine is hardly unprecedented. After Theresa May argued that only migrants with jobs lined up should be allowed to enter the UK, David Cameron pledged in 2015 that the UK would accept 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020. However, this was still widely criticised and is reminiscent of the current government’s efforts to curb migration from Ukraine. Recently, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that Ukrainian refugees can apply for temporary asylum in the UK online but acceptance will be limited to those who already have close family in the country with whom they will reunite.
Despite these measures, Home Office Minister Kevin Foster told Members of Parliament that they had granted 5,500 visas under this scheme out of 20,000 total applications submitted. This number could be significantly higher should the UK government decide to allow Ukrainian refugees to travel freely to the UK given the horrific events going on in their home country. This would, however, be a surprising decision given the UK’s historically restrictive policies on asylum seekers and migrants. The Conservative MP Adam Holloway criticised the government’s actions for making it “extraordinarily difficult” for Ukrainian refugees to reach the UK, describing the decision to restrict granting asylum to Ukrainian refugees as “utterly farcical”. While it has granted visas to some, the UK government’s response is overwhelmingly one of reluctance to implement laws which would ease the suffering for Ukrainian refugees during this crisis.
However, hope is potentially offered by the government’s recent launch of the Homes for Ukraine refugees scheme. This programme sees UK households housing Ukrainian refugees rent-free in return for £350 tax-free monthly payments. So far, over 100,000 British individuals and organisations have signed up; this scheme will hopefully enable the UK to accommodate more Ukrainian refugees than would have been allowed under the current restrictive visa application process alone.
In contrast to the UK’s approach, refugees entering countries within the European Union are not required to fill in a visa form. In addition, Brussels is set to apply a hitherto unused EU law to host Ukrainian refugees. This law, called the Temporary Protection Directive was approved in 2001 and grants immediate temporary protection to people who, though displaced from non-EU countries, are forced to leave their country because of armed conflict, violence and human rights violations. When proposed by the European Commission and voted in by the EU Council, this temporary protection motion allows refugees to be allocated to EU countries according to their capacities. If voted in again, the protection can last a maximum of three years and would mean that all member states, except Ireland and Denmark, must receive displaced people in accordance with their country’s capacity. They are also required to issue proper residence permits to those granted access and help them obtain work permits, accommodation and medical treatment as well as other benefits such as granting children access to the same education system as the country’s residents.
The UK has an opportunity to mirror the decisions of the EU in allowing safe and easier asylum for those seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion has added to various ongoing worldwide refugee crises that have been intensifying for years, yet the UK’s current response does not reflect the severity of the situation. The number of refugees making the treacherous journey across the English Channel rose from under 2,000 in 2019, to over 25,000 in 2021. These people travel because the UK denies them entry, and the dangerous journey is seen as preferable to the horrors they face at home. Something must change which would allow those who are displaced as a result of Russia’s invasion to find safety within the UK’s borders. Until this happens, the British government cannot claim that it is doing all it can to ensure the safety of those men, women and children who have been forced from their country, from their families and from their homes.