12 year old Ukrainian refugee Akim Huhnin from Cherkasy, listens in Truro Cathedral to the Cornwall Choristers recording a Ukrainian work to raise funds for Ukraine on March 21, 2022 in Truro, England. Picture credit: Hugh Hastings/Getty Images

We should open our borders to the victims of Putin

Immigration is a potent weapon in the war on authoritarianism

Artillery Row

Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine has caused a humanitarian disaster and a refugee crisis. In the midst of such a tragedy is heartening to see so many people around the world, including in the UK, being prepared to offer a home to Ukrainian refugees. However, as I argue in a new paper for the Adam Smith Institute, the UK should not only take a much more welcoming approach to Ukrainian refugees, we should take a much more liberal approach to immigration in general.

“Safe” is a subjective term

We should waive all visa requirements for Ukrainian nationals and allow them to live, work, study, or claim benefits for up to five years with the option to apply for citizenship. There is a strong moral argument for this — the people fleeing to Britain will have lost everything, including their homes and their families. As such, it is only right that we give these people the opportunity to build a new life for themselves in the UK.

The UK should not stop there. The government should also make it easier for highly skilled Russian and Belarusian nationals — especially those working in STEM — to move to the UK. Again, there is a moral case to be made as many ordinary Russians and Belarusians are also victims of their country’s tyrannical leaders, and so they should have the opportunity to start a new life in the West.

Such a move would also bring huge benefits to Britain as these highly skilled workers would help to plug our skills gap, increasing productivity and thereby boosting economic growth. What is more, it would drain Russia and Belarus of its most productive workers, depleting tax revenue and so helping to cripple the Kremlin’s war machine and further undermining Putin.

All this could be achieved with simple reforms to the “points based system”. Introducing a Target Nation Status worth 20 points for anyone from Russia and Belarus would mean that they would almost certainly qualify for a visa if they are working in STEM. This Target Nation Status could also be extended to other people living in oppressive regimes. 

The ASI paper goes further by calling for a Liberty Pass to be introduced in order to attract the most highly skilled people from these countries. It would work in a similar way to the Global Talent Visa albeit less bureaucratic and would also involve grants being paid to recipients.

We should also use the awful events happening in Ukraine as an opportunity to reform our immigration system. A quick first step would be to adopt the policy proposed by Sunder Katwala of British Future who has suggested the government extends the Homes for Ukrainians to refugees from other countries such as Afghanistan. 

The government needs to lift the ban on refugees working or claiming benefits

This would be a great first step, but we should go even further. The outpouring of support for those fleeing Ukraine suggests that people in the UK are much more welcoming to refugees than the media or the Home Office would suggest. As such, the government would do well to rethink its Nationality and Borders Bill and, rather than making it much harder for refugees to come to this country, look at making it easier for people to start a new life here.

The first step would be to tackle the idea of the “First Safe Country”. This is often used as an argument against the UK offering asylum to people who reach Europe but is problematic for a number of reasons. First, it is unfair to expect some countries to take a disproportionate number of refugees due to an accident of geography. Second, there is no obligation for refugees to remain in such a country. 

And third, “safe” is a subjective term. By this I mean that countries might be safe for some refugees, this might not be the case if you are a religious, ethnic, or sexual minority. For example, it is admirable that Poland has opened its borders to refugees from Ukraine, but given its stance on LGBTQ+ rights, it might not be safe for sexual minorities.

We also need to open up safe routes to the UK. It is right that we condemn human traffickers who are exploiting some of the most vulnerable people in the world, but unfortunately they will be able to continue to ply their despicable trade while there are desperate people who have no other route to the UK. The most effective way of putting these evil people out of business is ensuring that refugees can come to the UK safely.

The way refugees are treated when they arrive also needs to be addressed. It is often a lengthy and stressful process which exacerbates the suffering of often traumatised people. It also asks embarrassing and invasive questions with a Western bias for those claiming asylum due to their sexuality or religious beliefs.

Finally, the government needs to lift the ban on refugees working or claiming benefits. Plunging already vulnerable people into poverty is not only cruel, it also means that the UK economy is missing out on productive workers.

The situation in Ukraine is awful, but it does give us the chance to reassess how we approach immigration. The UK should become much more welcoming to people from around the world, especially the highly skilled and those fleeing oppression. Not only is this the right thing to do, it will bring huge economic benefits to Britain.

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