When the idea of Brexit was touted to the British electorate, one of the benefits voters were told would be that Britain would be “able to regain control of its borders”.
This, in political parlance, was a fancy way of saying that the British could control who came into the country and whether they could work or not. Yes, it was a right-wing knee-jerk reaction to the roughly 2 million workers mostly from Eastern European countries who had called the UK home, especially since Poland, Romania and Bulgaria joined the European Union and later gained the right to work within the economic bloc.
On Britain’s main streets, Polish food shops and cafes became commonplace, car washes sprung up with Romanian staff with rags and pressure washers, and builders were often Bulgarian without worrying about the intricacies of UK tax rules.
For many Britons, voting to leave the bloc was an opportunity to close the door once and for all – even if it meant British workers were less willing to flip burgers and draw points for minimum wage.
Two years into this grand Brexit experiment, the madness to leave the bloc means there is a shortage of workers to drive the lorries, stock the shelves or pick the fruit and vegetables from Britain’s fields.
Chronic shortage of nursing staff
But the skills shortage is also reflected in nursing homes and hospitals, where there is a chronic shortage of care staff willing to look after the elderly and infirm, or clean and maintain the hundreds of hospitals in the National Health Service. It is now estimated that one in four jobs in the NHS are unfilled, and the same is true in care home sectors.
This is part of the reason why, for example, the UK government has backed away from making coronavirus vaccination compulsory for all workers in the NHS and care home sectors. The initial decision was that if health workers are not bitten, they cannot have work.
With around an eighth of care home workers having no shots, the sector faced an existential crisis, a crisis where homes would have to close because there simply weren’t enough staff between Brexit and the requirement of stings, to continue. In January, the government gave in and changed the rules on this mandatory injection requirement.
But that Brexit slogan of taking back control of its borders now puts Boris Johnson’s government in a difficult position with more than two million Ukrainian refugees flocking to Western Europe as they flee conflict in their homeland.
Across Western Europe there is a tremendous outpouring of sympathy for these desperate people, the elderly, women and children.
Most communities have drop-off points where clothing, blankets and donations can be made to support refugees from Ukraine. Every ferry now leaving UK ports for European ports carries rescue vans to help those most in need.
And there is growing pressure on the UK to do more to help those forced to flee Ukraine.
So far, of the estimated 2 million forced from their Ukrainian homes, villages and towns, only 500 have been allowed to enter the UK.
Priti Patel, the British Home Secretary responsible for immigration, is stalling. His department sent a team of officials to France to help process potential refugees in the UK.
It turns out less than a dozen were sent, and they offered chocolate bars and bags of crisps to the refugees, and advised them to go to Paris or Brussels to have their papers processed. Even then, it takes at least two weeks for a first date, and that date calendar fills up with every passing hour.
Conservative backbenchers are growing increasingly frustrated with the government’s response to the humanitarian crisis and its slowness in dealing with refugees. The Home Office requires new arrivals to have a visa, which requires biometric scanning to ensure refugees are not a security risk.
Granted the right to stay
Compare the UK’s approach – and frustration – with that taken by the Republic of Ireland. So far, some 3,000 Ukrainian refugees have made their way to Ireland.
Communities and towns, as in the UK, have generously donated. But they have also been granted the right to stay, have access to social and health care programs, and have access to housing and emergency shelter.
Just like the rest of the EU, it is an open door policy. And the difference is noticed by Conservative MPs.
There is a feeling in some quarters that many Ukrainians who travel to Ireland will invariably end up moving to the UK through a back door.
There are no border controls between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom. Nor are their border controls between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This would only infuriate those in Northern Ireland who want the province to remain an integral part of the UK.
But there are also those who believe the UK should follow the EU’s lead and simply open its borders to Ukrainian refugees. This of course opens up a new debate about the wisdom of Brexit and closing the borders in the first place.
The common travel area between the UK and Ireland predates the EU itself, and is part of the reason why Schengen visas for Europe do not include travel to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.
The situation will only get worse in the coming weeks. As a member of the EU, Ireland has pledged to take in 2% of all Ukrainian refugees.
It’s only a matter of time before it comes out that if you’re a Ukrainian refugee and want to go to the UK, all you have to do is go to Ireland… where you will be welcomed with open arms.