A world-leading visa system? Tell that to Ukrainian refugees who can’t get past Calais

One of the things people often say when they see a colourised photo from the past is how vividly it brings history to life. The type of historical images we are more accustomed – and perhaps more inured – to seeing in monochrome are made breathtakingly new in colour, and this or that photo from the second world war is given such immediacy that it feels like something more relatable from our present.

Yet for the first time yesterday, I saw the technique work in the other direction. When an image of the vast and desperate crowds at Kharkiv train station was flying around, an ITN cameraman posted the same picture but in black and white, and it instantly felt 10 times more arresting. Happening right now was a tableau straight from Europe’s dark past – thousands of tightly packed people massed on a station platform and trying to flee, vastly outnumbering the available train space. Perhaps we know best how to read this picture when we literally see it in black and white.

Nearly 1,700 miles away in Calais, alas, another image surfaces. This is a piece of printer paper taped to a wall, perhaps by some cursed emissary of the British home office, which reads: NO VISAS DELIVERED IN CALAIS. For the exhausted Ukrainians who find it, two sparse instructions follow: 1. Type in a long and unwieldy URL to fill in a form. 2. Go all the way to Paris or Brussels to apply for a visa.

Why are we like this? In the words Alf Dubs, who arrived in the UK on the Kindertransport in 1939: “Shouldn’t we be ashamed of ourselves?” Why – yet again – does the Home Office respond to a crisis in a manner that appears to run the full gamut from nasty to useless? Contrary to all manner of contradictory spin from No 10 and the home secretary, “world-leading”, “tailored” and “bespoke” solutions and innovations are not making things easier for Ukrainians in their time of need.

Instead, the inevitable humanitarian crisis caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine seems to have taken those who should have known better by surprise. Boris Johnson’s administration is tough on war but weak on what we know is its timeworn fallout.

At the time it was reported that Poland had taken 800,000 refugees, the UK had accepted a mere 50. Which, to put things into perspective, is half the number of people you’d invite to a Downing Street bring-your-own-bottle party in the middle of a lockdown. Outraged by this dated inaccuracy, the Home Office yesterday corrected the record to show that a whole 300 visas had now been granted to fleeing Ukrainians. Which is three BYOB guestlists, and a mere 2.7% of the number of refugees who arrived in Berlin last Friday alone.

The UK is reduced to preposterous sleights of hand, attempting to make a virtue of what amount to bars to entry. Yesterday the Home Office was trumpeting having “the first visa scheme in the world” to launch post-invasion, studiously ignoring the huge number of countries that have waived the need for visas entirely to tackle the crisis. “I am not going to be drawn into this,” breezed Foreign Office minister James Cleverly. “Because really this is a team sport, and we’re pulling together as a team on this.” The numbers indicate we’re not. We’re letting other countries do the pulling together while we sit in the boat and pontificate about the view.

Shambles is the kinder reading. The suspicion is that the system is functioning as designed – that these things are not happening to the Home Office and the government of which it is part, but because of them. Both No 10 and the Foreign Office slapped down Priti Patel’s mooted plan to open easier access for all those fleeing Ukraine. Fellow secretaries of state either offer pointed assistance to the Home Office or wash their hands of its operations. This morning Ben Wallace volunteered Ministry of Defence personnel support; yesterday Liz Truss sniffed: “It’s really a matter for the home secretary exactly how the visa process works.”

Can one of them – any of them – just get it together on this front? In the years and decades after the second world war, many nations in Europe and beyond looked back on their actions and came to the painful realisation that they could and should have done more in various ways, not least in accepting refugees. As images of exodus are now reminding us, history is never in the past. History is now. It will be to our enduring shame if we don’t try much harder to be on the right side of it.

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