After two decades of blaming immigration for almost every social and economic ill the nation faces, the Conservative Party have just executed the most astonishing screaming U-turn. Refugees welcome, they now say. Well, sort of.
Initial reticence to accept any refugees fleeing Ukraine on the part of the government has morphed into a sudden warmth of welcome, underpinned by a government-backed scheme to house those entering the country with willing hosts volunteering space in their own homes.
At the time of writing, almost 50,000 generous individuals have signed up and offered to help those who need a spare room while they resettle in the UK. On Monday night, so many people were registering their interest that the gov.uk site began crashing under the traffic pressure.
The strength of public opinion has been heartening, and the unselfish response a reassuring reminder that, despite the cruelty of the Home Office, most Brits still believe that Britain is and should be a place of sanctuary and acceptance. The affair has exposed the government as remarkably out of step with the public mood.
In fact, so remote have public attitudes and government policy become from one another that the Home Office now stands accused by the Information Commissioner ofdeliberately withholding the results of a public consultation on its latest plans for asylum reform before the laws have been passed. Why? Quite possibly because these are laws that the majority of British people do not agree with.
The rapid creation and backing of the Homes for Ukraine scheme is clearly designed to disguise the government’s terrible misstep over Ukraine, and to do it quickly (the local elections are now little more than six weeks away). Johnson and his cabinet think they’re onto a winner by tapping into what they perceive as some kind of Blitz spirit.
Yet there’s a troubling undercurrent, too: a government that was openly hostile to the idea of removing visa requirements and relaxing borders to those fleeing conflict now, in recognition of the power of public perception on what is primarily a moral matter, changes its mind because it has found a way to offset – or even to palm off – its own obligations and responsibilities.
The government is washing its hands of the problem of how, and where, to house refugees securely and handed that responsibility over to us. When they thought they had to solve this problem, it was insurmountable; now we’ve all collectively offered to help, suddenly it is not. It doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. And while I’m delighted that so many Brits are open-hearted enough to make this offer, the precedent it sets is worrying.
When a civilian opens their home to a stranger in need, a power imbalance is established. Remember that most of the refugees fleeing Kyiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro and other cities are women and children. The “light touch” safeguarding checks that will be carried out by government, alongside the role that charitable organisations will play in matching refugees with potential hosts, will likely filter out those seeking to directly exploit the vulnerability of refugee families and of course those with any history of abuse or criminal activity, but it can’t offer any more comprehensive security than that. Surely the government owes Ukrainian children something more concrete?
To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here
There is a need for speed which rightly prioritises flexibility over endless red tape, but that power imbalance is incredibly important. Already, yesterday, a radio phone in show revealed one caller who thought taking in a refugee would mean they had someone to “help around the house”. Imagine the sense of obligation that person might feel to capitulate, and how hard it would be to complain or extrapolate oneself from what could quickly become an exploitative situation.
We are living through a time of particular financial hardship, with more economising required of us as energy bills rise and the cost of feeding a family increases weekly. A cash payment of £350 per month is designed as a recognition, not a reward, of the work and sacrifice that goes into hosting a refugee and their family. It’s not beyond our imaginings to suggest that, at a time of extreme financial pressure, it could also prove an incentive to take part without having fully considered the implications.
The scheme requires volunteers to open their home for a minimum of six months. When that period comes to an end, what next? If plans are not in place to properly house this large group of refugees in private rented or social housing, through a proper government placement programme, then we’re going to end up with a mass homelessness crisis affecting the lives of thousands of already traumatised children, or a large group of volunteers who feel they can’t say no to extending the stay – or both. Who would kick out a refugee and her child just because your government has failed them? It’s a recipe for stirring social antagonism.
The government has been caught on the backfoot. The profoundly positive response to Homes for Ukraine is also cry from the public for a government with a moral underpinning. We are, when it is needed, willing to do its work for it. And we shouldn’t have to.