LEICESTER, United Kingdom – British Cardinal Vincent Nichols is calling on the government of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to allow Ukrainian refugees “to enter the UK as quickly as possible.”
Nichols is the Archbishop of Westminster and president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.
The cardinal’s appeal came in a letter from the London Church Leaders, which brings together the heads of the different Christian denominations in the British capital. The leaders met on March 10 at London’s Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family to pray with Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says over 2 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbor on Feb. 24.
The vast majority – nearly 1.5 million – have gone to Poland, but both Hungary and Slovakia have accepted over 100,000 each. Many of those headed to the UK already have family connections in the country.
Johnson’s government has come under fire for the hurdles put in the way of Ukrainians fleeing the war, including requiring asylum seekers make appointments at local consul offices.
On Thursday, the government announced a consular post would be set up in Calais, France, to deal with the surge of Ukrainians hoping to reunite with relatives living in Britain. Previously, they had been told to make their asylum applications in Paris or Brussels.
Although Johnson’s government has promised to admit 200,000 refugees, as of Thursday, only about 1,000 visas had been issued.
A new policy to streamline the acceptance of Ukrainian refugees is expected to be announced on Monday, and it will include a scheme for non-family members to sponsor asylum seekers.
“We are encouraged by the government’s family sponsorship program and welcome the intention to establish a pathway to humanitarian sponsorship,” Nichols and the other Christian leaders said in a letter to the government.
“As the number of Ukrainian citizens seeking shelter outside the borders of Ukraine is estimated to reach close to two million, we cannot but emphasise the urgency to act swiftly and without delay,” the letter continued.
“As the children and grandchildren of those who experienced the horror of war seven decades ago, it is our moral obligation to provide protection and hospitality to those who are undergoing the same horrors today, unthinkable as that may seem in the 21st century,” the document said.
The letter then referred to the World War II practice of sending children from London and other urban centers to the countryside, in order to avoid the German bombing campaign, noting that now “tens of thousands are hoping to find refuge far from Russia’s relentless, unconscionable, and indiscriminate attacks on homes, hospitals and schools throughout their homeland.”
“Surely, we feel compassion today for Ukrainian mothers with young children, the elderly and those with disabilities, who have undertaken dangerous and arduous travel, and look to the United Kingdom with hope and are now reaching out to us in Ukraine’s greatest hour of need,” the church leaders said.
They also urged the UK government to drop onerous requirements for asylum seekers, who are required to apply online for sanctuary in Britain.
“How can mothers with young children, the elderly and the disabled, who have travelled a thousand miles be expected to complete online application forms in a language foreign to them? Times of war require swift action and flexibility, the easing of normal procedures and the removal of complex bureaucratic obstacles that can easily turn hope into despair and resignation,” the letter says.
The leaders also asked that sponsorship for asylum seekers not be limited to those with family members in the UK, “but that those sponsorship criteria be expanded to include all Ukrainian refugees on humanitarian grounds, allowing them to enter the UK as quickly as possible.”
Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome