'Our country's treatment of refugees is a source of national shame'

Catherine West attending an Amnesty International roundtable

Catherine West marked International Women's Day by attending an Amnesty International roundtable with Afghan women - Credit: Office of Catherine West

This year I marked International Women’s Day at an Amnesty International roundtable with Afghan women human rights defenders.

I met amazing women, former ambassadors, ministers in the Afghan government, peace negotiators, and as I listened to their experiences and their desire to be part of Afghanistan’s future, I was inspired by their incredible strength in the face of conflict.

Sadly, some also told me of the struggles they were facing as refugees here in the UK since the Taliban takeover. Some were still living in hotels, many months on, unable to start rebuilding their lives and fully contributing their exceptional skills to our society. Worryingly, I heard stories about people being unable to register with GPs, especially young children and babies and pregnant women who would suffer in silence.

Catherine West, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green

Catherine West is not surprised at the way the Tory government is treating refugees - Credit: Chris McAndrew

I would like to say I was shocked. But the way our country, under Johnson’s Conservative government, treats refugees has long been a source of national shame. The Tory hostile environment is now entrenched in all policy relating to migrants and fleeing refugees. Denying asylum seekers the right to work, demonising them for seeking sanctuary and pushing the cruel Nationality and Borders Bill through parliament to criminalise vulnerable refugees risking their lives to reach the UK. 

Now, our shame is on a global stage, as millions of women and children flee Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.  

The world has responded to this unprecedented humanitarian crisis, with Poland offering refuge to one million refugees in a matter of days. Yet as I write this the UK barely 300. Instead, we’re putting up bureaucratic hoops for desperate refugees to jump through, a stain on our otherwise commendable response to the crisis in Ukraine and one I directly challenged the foreign secretary about in parliament.  

We’re the only country in Europe failing to offer a simple, sanctuary route to reunite refugees with family. My constituent’s mum fled Ukraine and is struggling to even get a visa appointment. The website keeps crashing and when my office raised her case, the Home Office said demand is so high she may have to wait weeks. Other families are arriving in Calais only to be turned back to join a queue in Paris. 

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It is shameful, but to anyone who has been following the way this government treats refugees it is not surprising. This outcry must become a turning point that shines a light on the situation facing refugees, not just from Ukraine, but from Afghanistan to Syria, Yemen to Burma. Refugees fleeing unimaginable horrors deserve so much better. 

Catherine West (Lab) is MP for Hornsey and Wood Green and a shadow foreign minister.