With Ukraine’s refugees, a cautious approach will keep the British public on side

  • Insight
  • 7 March 2022

by Luke Tryl

Britain welcomed my grandfather from Ukraine in the aftermath of the Second World War. And while my attempts to learn the Ukrainian language and dancing as a child met limited success, it remains a proud part of my heritage.

And the events of the past week have been nothing short of heart-breaking. I’ve found myself torn between awe and admiration for the bravery of the Ukraine people and anger and despair at the brutality of Putin’s regime. But, amid all that, the reaction of the British public has given me cheer.

Across the country, Britons have been united in their determination to help Ukranians. The notion that post-Brexit Britain has become nothing more than a nation of little Englanders has been thoroughly refuted – with the UK taking the lead in international efforts to punish the Putin regime – even while knowing that those actions will inevitably make life harder here at home.

It is understandable then that some are frustrated that our approach to welcoming refugees — which despite now having a potential reach of 200,000 Ukrainians — still seems to lag behind more generous and unconditional offers from EU countries. To those voices, I’d offer a note of caution.

Those of us who want to help Ukraine will need to rely on the public continuing to support action, not just over the next few days, but for months and years in the future. That means not just holding public attention, which will inevitably diminish as the conflict rolls on, but demanding more of the British public too.

Even before the invasion, the rising cost of living was starting to take its toll on families across the UK. Our focus groups conversations are now filled with stories about trade-offs between filling up the car at the petrol station or filling up the trolley in the supermarket.

To be sure, that is nothing compared to the experience of school children fleeing Russian rockets, but as the cost-of-living crisis unfolds and worsens, maintaining public support for sanctions will become harder.

It’s incumbent on all those who support action to help Ukraine, to work with the public and to be honest about the challenges we’ll face in order to maintain support over the months (and potentially years) ahead.

We need that same approach of levelling with the public on refugees too. While polls show the public overwhelmingly support the UK welcoming refugees from Ukraine, we know that commitment isn’t boundless.

People want to know that any scheme is secure and controlled. Part of that means reassuring the public that proper measures are in place to vet those coming to the UK, which is why the security services’ advice – however frustrating – to the home secretary must be taken seriously.

The other part is being clear this isn’t about an “open door”. Our polling consistently finds that a lack of “control” on immigration – usually typified by the image of small boats crossing the Channel – is a top concern for at least three of the seven segments of the UK public we’ve identified. Ignoring this will quickly turn support for taking refugees into opposition.

That’s why those of us who feel the urgency to do more, have a responsibility to avoid triggering a public backlash by reducing this to a numbers game.

Instead, the first way to build long-term support for taking refugees is to think about how we talk about the UK’s role – which can matter as much as the issue itself.

To give one example, last weekend we conducted research in the United States that found support for taking in refugees fell by about 10 points when it is described as a moral obligation.

That might seem counterintuitive, but people resist being lectured or cajoled by moralising language and instead want the agency to decide for themselves that welcoming refugees is the right response to this crisis. The language we use matters.

Second, people want reassurance about the process for accepting refugees – not just getting them into the country, but what happens after they arrive to ensure they are properly integrated into the community. One answer to that question is community refugee sponsorship, a scheme through which local groups apply to sponsor a refugee and then provide financial, housing and language support.

Unsurprisingly, a scheme that is about local people stepping up to welcome refugees and provides a clear path to integration is popular with the public: we found a 12-point increase in support to welcoming refugees through community sponsorship compared with traditional government routes, with even the most trenchant opponents of immigration less likely to object to the scheme.

The UK government launched community sponsorship in 2016, and has now confirmed there will be a specific programme to allow groups to sponsor Ukrainians with no ties to the UK to come here.

While community sponsorship won’t be for everyone, it provides a concrete way for those who want to do more to help to step up, while at the same time reassuring those more sceptical about taking refugees that there is a proper, controlled process.

This may all seem like excessive caution as Ukrainians flee a war zone. But those of us most passionate about doing our bit must focus on how we build on the support the public has for tough action on Putin, and a generous welcome for refugees – rather than ignoring the public and making demands they won’t bear.

I can’t wait to be able to visit a free Lviv — the city where my grandfather lived — but until Ukraine has won this war and can welcome us back, it is our duty to do all we can to make sure we can to protect the mandate for welcoming its people here.

Luke Tryl is UK director of More in Common

First published: The Times, 7th March 2022