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Britain’s inhumane system is failing refugees

The Homes for Ukraine scheme garnered a huge response when it was launched last month. More than 150,000 Brits signed up in just a few days to host Ukrainian refugees in their own home or in second homes. But it has been beset by delays, leaving Ukrainians who have applied to the scheme stranded while they wait for visas to be processed.

These inhumane delays are a feature, not a bug, of government refugee policy. It could have chosen at any point to do what the EU has done: to waive any visa requirements for Ukrainians fleeing the barbaric cruelty of Putin’s forces, who we have learned in recent days have been perpetrating the rape, torture and murder of innocent men, women and children. In just four weeks, more than four million Ukrainians have left their country. Yet the UK has been unconscionably sluggish to react, and even now there are just two routes available for those seeking refuge in the UK: a family visa scheme for those with family already settled in the UK, or the Homes for Ukraine route.

Just 500 people have been admitted to the UK through the latter portal, despite over 30,000 applications being made. When you read the small print, it’s no surprise. Refugees have to have an individual sponsor that they either find themselves or wait to be assigned through a pilot matching scheme that has yet to get properly off the ground.

The Nationality and Borders Bill would criminalise any Ukrainians who come to the UK without a visa; the opposite of the EU approach

People who have already matched themselves online have reported long delays in the visa issuing process. And charities have rightly expressed concerns about the risk of exploitation – sexual exploitation, sex trafficking and modern slavery – the government has created by demanding that refugees, who are overwhelmingly women and children, find an individual sponsor. Refugees report that UK-based sex traffickers and slum landlords have already started to target them online.

A homestay-style scheme – supporting refugees to become settled in the UK by matching them with (officially-approved) people who have space to accommodate them – could have a role to play; but it will only work as part of a more generous offer that makes a priority of getting refugees here safely. Insisting that refugee visas are contingent on finding sponsors is a symptom of the government shifting its approach to refugee and asylum policy; it means that Britain gets to pick and choose its own terms, thereby ripping up a decades-long consensus on refugee policy.

This can be seen in the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through parliament. If passed, it would contravene international law and the 1951 Refugee Convention, by making it illegal for anyone to arrive in the UK seeking asylum without being pre-approved by a government resettlement scheme like Homes for Ukraine. Yet the foundation of international refugee law is that anyone who applies for asylum in a country has the right to have their claim fairly assessed, regardless of how they arrived there. The Bill would criminalise any Ukrainians who come to the UK without a visa; the opposite of the EU approach.

An overwhelming majority of the public want the government to do more to help Ukrainian refugees. So it is hard to know who the government thinks it is appealing to with these measures. It is the sign of a government more focused on trying to gain a few votes here and there by picking culture wars at the expense of refugees, rather than making the case for a humane asylum system for those fleeing horrors we can barely comprehend.

Gender in sport

Women’s sport has become the latest flashpoint in the debate about the relative importance of biological sex and gender identity. As usual, there are competing considerations that need to be balanced.

Those who argue trans women should be able to compete in women’s sport point to the importance of inclusion; that it would be upsetting or offensive to ask someone who is biologically male but who identifies as female to compete in the male category. That needs to be weighed against the scientific evidence that athletes who have been through male puberty retain a significant competitive advantage due to their increased muscle and reduced fat mass, even after prolonged testosterone suppression.

The reason most sports are segregated by sex is that the competitive advantage conferred by the male physique – including after testosterone suppression – means even the most brilliant female athletes wouldn’t get a look-in if sports were mixed sex. Even a relatively small number of accomplished trans women athletes would dominate grassroots or elite sport as a result of this advantage. Yet the growing numbers of female athletes who have been brave enough to speak out about this have been bullied online and wrongly accused of being transphobic. This is not acceptable.

There is no perfect solution that can recognise the wishes of trans women athletes to compete in the sex category with which they identify, while protecting fairness in female sport. But one proposal is to have a “female-only” category in sport alongside an “open” category that anyone can opt into. That seems a good, if imperfect, compromise.

Sonia Sodha is chief leader writer at the Observer and a Guardian/Observer columnist. She also presents Analysis documentaries for Radio 4

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