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Time to extend the UK’s warm welcome of Ukrainians to all refugees

April 5, 2022 at 12:00 pm

A sign welcoming Ukrainian refugees at St Pancras station on April 04, 2022 in London, England. [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

Between January and March 2013, 147 bodies were found in the River Queiq in Aleppo after they were executed in government-controlled parts of the city and dumped there as a warning for dissidents.

According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report at the time, the people appeared to have been detained and shot with their hands tied behind their backs, their mouths taped closed.

At the time, the government controlled the north-west of the city, and its opponents the south-east. The river snaked through the two districts as a dividing line, but since then, all opposition members in east Aleppo have been forced out.

Recent reports from Bucha in Ukraine paint a grim picture which in many ways evokes the River Queiq massacre nine years ago, and the ones that followed. Bodies have been found in the Ukrainian town with their hands bound behind their back, a bullet wound to the head.

A 14-metre mass grave has been uncovered whilst residents said that Russian soldiers shot at men fleeing the town as they ran across open fields, blocking their exit via the humanitarian corridor.

READ: Rising bread prices, water scarcity and a climate crisis. Egypt is on the brink.

As the horrors continue to hit the headlines, in the UK welcome hubs have been set up at airports, ports and train stations to welcome Ukrainian refugees and provide food, clothing and sanitary products to those arriving.

The UK has granted some 25,500 visas to Ukrainian refugees in roughly four weeks, just over the amount it gave to Syrians in six years though both have endured indescribable horrors of war which have for a large part been from the same invading country, Russia.

When Russia joined the war in Syria two years after the bodies were found in the River Queiq, news of massacres like this one were widely reported, yet Russia joined forces with the government and Western powers did nothing to stop it.

Although Russia may not have had forces on the ground in Syria to carry out mass executions like it is doing in Ukraine now, it supported the Syrian government in targeting civilians, schools and healthcare centres including maternity hospitals.

Together, Syria and Russia flattened Homs just as Russia did to Kharkiv in the north-east of Ukraine. Mariupol is under siege as was Aleppo for four years. Both endured relentless shelling.

It’s not just Syrian refugees that are looking for a safe place to live. In 2020 the UK issued visas to 12,600 Afghans and since the 2003 invasion, the UK has taken in 12,749 refugees from Iraq though millions have fled abroad to escape persecution and conflict.

Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans and more have travelled on foot through mainland Europe and crossed the English Channel, the busiest shipping lane in the world known for its extremely strong currents and freezing cold water.

By contrast, Ukrainians have arrived by train and travel on to the UK for free via the Eurotunnel, the railway which passes below the English Channel.

READ: Is Europe really more civilised? Ukraine conflict a platform for racism and rewriting history

Yesterday, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees called on Europe to “urgently consider” how to apply its generous and effective ability to host four million refugees from Ukraine “to other refugees and migrants knocking, in distress, at its doors.”

Filippo Grandi’s comments came after 90 people drowned in the Mediterranean after their overcrowded boat from Libya, which was Europe bound, capsized. Only four survived and were rescued after being adrift at sea for four days.

Charities have long called for governments to offer safe passage to refugees so that they don’t take treacherous journeys and for the welcome that Ukrainians have received to be extended to all arrivals.

It is short sighted to only offer help to the people fleeing the immediate horrors of Russia’s invasion for the fighting will have reverberations far beyond the immediate territory it is taking place in.

Several Middle Eastern countries rely on Ukraine for wheat and with supply so severely disrupted due to the fighting, aid agencies have warned of severe food insecurity, particularly for Egypt, Lebanon, and Yemen. As things go from bad to worse, more people from this region will now also make their way to Europe.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.