Cameron Penny is a corporate PR consultant and Conservative activist, and writes in a personal capacity.
I don’t really know where to begin. I hope that after reading this people realise anew the need to keep up support for the Ukrainian people and not to allow the bloody grind of war to become something inert.
The longer that we see the horrors on our screens, the more danger that we become detached from what is a European struggle of democracy against dictatorship.
We all saw the news of 24 February. That Russia had invaded Ukraine and declared war on her people. Our Prime Minister said that Ukraine had the UK’s “unwavering support”.
The war has sparked the largest flow of refugees in modern times. In little over a month, it’s estimated that four million people have left their homeland. Millions more are internally displaced.
Media and social media channels are awash with comment, minute-by-minute, never-ending comment about how appalling the war is. It is appalling. Despite the inspiring rhetoric of Volodymyr Zelensky, words have often seemed inadequate to the task of telling the story of what is happening to people only 1000 miles or so away.
Standing in the kitchen though I realised, perhaps in a slightly facile way, that I could act. With a couple of days leave bookending the next weekend it was possible to get to Poland. To make a donation at a local church was the plan.
After a 23 hour, 1,000 mile blast across Europe to Lublin, a night’s sleep would find me the following day passing through Polish and Ukrainian customs. In the car I carried some French nationals: one on a mission to help extract his Ukrainian girlfriend, the other two kitted out for something more than a weekend’s camping.
On the return the car would take four Ukrainian women and a child back into Poland after a seemingly endless 33 hour crawl through a ten-mile-long queue at the border. It seemed, even in war, bureaucracy had its own lifeforce.
Since returning from Ukraine in early March, one face returns to me every day. It is the face of a woman who was standing about three feet away, outside Lviv train station, as one of the volunteers provided information about buses and taxies.
It’s a face that I’ve not tried to consciously forget nor to conjure. It returns to me every day because I have never seen such despair and anguish etched on someone else’s face. Like the thousands of people streaming in and out of the station, this lady was another person who had put what she could into a bag and walked out the door of her home without knowing when she would return.
Despite everything that is being written and posted by the many brave journalists who are in Ukraine, it is still difficult to convey the total horror of mass deprivation.
I thought I would be in Poland for three or four days over the weekend so I packed a satchel and a small case. The people I met had packed for the rest of their lives and brought the same with them.
Harper Lee told us to put ourselves in the other person’s shoes; you need to imagine packing one bag, grabbing your passport and wallet and then walking out of your home. You need to imagine not knowing what will happen to you except that you must get yourself and your family out of the country.
It seems almost pedestrian to write that, but what might seem unimaginable to you is very much real. It makes the UK’s failure of generosity regarding visas for Ukrainian refugees all the more galling.
Yes, we’re providing weaponry for the front and yes, we’ve seen people and organisations come together to raise money and donations. Polling and the pre-registration figures for the Homes for Ukraine scheme also indicate that the public wants to provide safe passage to the UK for Ukrainian women and children fleeing for their lives.
Yet we are stuck with Government policy that veers from the mind-numbing inhumanity of petty bureaucracy to the ludicrous insistence that every woman and child be checked in case the Russians try to smuggle in a few spies.
It’s difficult to know the source of this resistance to help. My local Conservative MP has a narrow focus on those constituents using the Family scheme – itself not without flaws – yet seems less concerned with the Homes scheme.
Other MPs such as Harriett Baldwin and Robert Jenrick have a more open attitude, and have recently called for much-needed and sensible changes such as translating the application forms into Ukrainian. Jenrick has rightly pointed out that the delays to processing applications risks putting off those who have registered to sponsor Ukrainians who want to come here. He’s right.
Those delays also greatly increase the risk of Ukrainian women and children falling prey to traffickers and others who would do them harm. Furthermore, it flies in the face of the Government’s own vision for Global Britain, which Dominic Raab, the then-Foreign Secretary, described at length as a “force for good”.
It is not consistent to proclaim that you are a force for good and then to ask women and children who have left everything – jobs, school, family, pets and home – to fill in multiple forms in a foreign language so they might be considered, just considered, the offer of sanctuary in the UK.
We have made it too difficult for Ukrainians to access help and it need not be this way. Other nations including Germany, where my guests have registered, have been far more open. Germany, like others, has chosen to prioritise humanity over a frankly paranoid, security-obsessed regard for self-interest.
A month on from my trip to Lviv I still grapple, like many people here, with a deep sense of helplessness. There are truly heroic people who have relocated to help on the ground in any way they can. They range from those helping to run supply lines to those who have taken up arms.
It’s not possible for everyone to do the same. But as Ukraine’s armed forces fight on through the second month of this bloody oppression, the one thing that we can all do is to write to our MPs and ministers to ask they reform the current visa policy. Opening more reception centres is a start.
We should remember that compassion is not weakness; Conservatives know that better than most. We are the champions for civil society, yet we face a Government seemingly unable or unwilling to be civil. That must change.