Labour is critical of the Government’s treatment of Ukrainian refugees – but is reluctant to take a straightforwardly more liberal approach, reports Adam Bienkov

Boris Johnson claimed at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday that the UK has an “unparalleled” record of helping refugees.

In one respect, he is right. Unlike all of our former colleagues in the European Union, the UK continues to deny visa-free entry to people fleeing from Ukraine.

This is not supported by the British people. One poll this week found that 60% of British adults back giving Ukrainians visa-free access to the UK.

However, while the public favours a much more liberal approach than the Government, the Labour Party appears reluctant to join them.

Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper this week ruled out backing visa-free access to Ukrainians and instead insisted that they should be given “emergency visas”. It is not entirely clear what an “emergency visa” is, however.

Asked by Byline Times to explain what it would actually mean in practice, a spokesman for Labour Leader Keir Starmer said on Wednesday that it would mean that “anyone fleeing conflict” would be granted access rather than “just immediate family members”.

Labour could not explain exactly how his differs from the Government’s proposed ‘sponsorship route’ for Ukrainians. However, Starmer’s spokesman insisted that it would mean that there would be a “fast route to sanctuary” for all Ukrainian refugees.

Labour insists it would keep the Government’s checks on those entering the UK, but would process claims much faster than the Government has. Fewer than a thousand of the 22,000 Ukrainians applying to come to the UK have so far had their claims granted.

Jonathan Portes, author of What Do We Know and What Should We Do About Immigration? told Byline Times that these statements suggest that there does appear to be some clear differences between the two parties’ positions on Ukraine.

“If what they’re saying is that any Ukrainian can apply for a visa and be granted it automatically then that seems to me to be a perfectly reasonable position,” he said.

It remains unclear to what extent Labour’s policy fits this description. However, Portes believes there would be other broader differences between a Starmer and Cooper Government and one led by Johnson and Priti Patel when it comes to Ukrainian refugees.

He told Byline Times: “Would a Cooper-led Home Office do offshore processing [of refugees] or be talking about pushing back boats in the channel? No. So I think there are some things with which a Labour Government would regard as unacceptable on political and human rights grounds.

“I think where Labour would be different is it would be more willing to do what Blunkett did, which is to cooperate with France, as opposed to the Patel approach of alternatively, insulting and threatening them, which obviously doesn’t work.”

Yet, given the fact these apparent differences between the Government and Labour exist, it remains unclear why Starmer’s party doesn’t simply back the EU’s existing policy of granting visa-free access to Ukrainians.

Portes suggests that it may be down to the fact that “Labour are nervous about being perceived to be ‘soft on immigration’ and refugees”.

He believes the party “probably feels more comfortable criticising the Government for being incompetent than for their reluctance to let people in”.

This suggestion, that Labour is merely attempting to present itself as a more competent version of the Government, has become a common criticism over recent months.

It raised its head again last month when Starmer ruled out rejoning the EU and insisted that he he would “make Brexit work”, rather than keep the door open to reversing it.

Similar complaints were also made when he went back on his previous pledges to back nationalisation of core utilities and the free movement of people from Europe.

Starmer’s critics on the left suggest that this is indicative of a broader failing of his leadership. They argue that, rather than offering the country radical change, Starmer only wishes for Labour to be seen as a more competent and humane version of the current Government.

“There is quite a traditional Labour narrative which says that our team of red rosettes and red ties at Westminster are good managers with good values, and the other team with blue ties and blue rosettes are bad managers with bad values,” Jeremy Corbyn’s former spokesman James Schneider told Byline Times.

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Starmer’s allies say this is a caricature of what they are attempting to achieve. and insist that a Labour government would be significantly different to one led by Johnson.

But, despite the fact that apparent differences between the two parties do exist, Labour still appears uneasy about opening up clear dividing lines with the Government when it comes to refugees.

For Portes, this comes down to a longstanding attitude shared by governments of both colours.

“The main priority of British refugee policy is to minimise the number of people who come here,” the professor of economics told Byline Times. “It goes back at least a century. It was the case for the Jews in the 1930s, it was the case for the Ugandan and east African Asians in the 60s and 70s, and it was a case in Kosovo in the early 2000s. The initial reaction of government politically, and the Home Office institutionally, is simply to try and minimise the number of people who come here.”

This reluctance is often overcome, as it was with Ugandan Asians and the other groups Portes added.

However, the UK’s generosity is often selective. While Johnson’s Government is set to offer the opportunity for British households to sponsor and take in Ukrainians fleeing their country, it is still not offering equivalent opportunities to Afghan refugees some 20 years after the UK first entered the country.

And while Johnson is right to suggest that there is much to be proud of in our country’s long-term record on refugees, its recent performance has not matched up to it.

At Prime Minister’s Questions this week, Johnson insisted that “this Government has a proud, proud record. We’ve done more to resettle vulnerable people than any other European country since 2015”.

This is straightforwardly untrue. Germany has settled more than a million refugees since 2015, compared to just 92,000 for the UK. And once you take population size into account, the UK has performed worse than 20 other European countries.

Looked at like this, it is hard to imagine that a Starmer Government would be any less welcoming to those fleeing war than Johnson’s has been.

However, Labour’s continued uneasiness about taking a clear-cut liberal approach on Ukraine suggests that the UK’s default ‘reluctant welcome’ will survive in some form, whoever becomes our next prime minister.

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