MP for Edinburgh North and Leith
Working to end the War
Picture yourself having to suddenly pick up everything you can carry - perhaps one or two precious things you treasure, what money you can scrape together and some sort of food - and exit your house with no time to think, no time to say goodbye to your family or neighbours or home. See yourself running for your life with your kids, dodging bullets and shrapnel and falling bricks and roof tiles. Then imagine being offered refuge in a country such as Scotland with people who are desperately keen to give you shelter. Your heart swells with hope after all the terror, only to discover you can’t get to safety and a peaceful existence because your application is bound up in what must seem like an endless sea of red tape.
I know I speak for many throughout Leith and Edinburgh when I say these folk have been uppermost in our thoughts these last months. Russia’s war on Ukraine started back in 2014 with the seizure of the Crimea and Donbas, but Putin’s full-scale invasion at the end of February ramped the conflict up to levels unimaginable in Europe since WWII. Millions of Ukrainians have had to flee their homeland but other countries such as Ireland have waived the need for visas and taken in many more thousands than the UK, a pretty shameful comparison when the population sizes of the two are compared
This time last year, members of the Ukrainian community in Edinburgh were busy making plans for the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence. Our city is twinned with Kyiv, and Ukrainians have deep roots here - the Ukrainian Club in Royal Terrace has been helping to keep their traditions and cultural events alive for decades, a home from home for members of the Ukrainian diaspora who emigrated here after World War 2 and their children. Independence day celebrations last August involved a gathering beside Edinburgh’s monument to the historical leader, Volodymyr the Great, as well as the raising of the Ukrainian flag at the City Chambers - the first time it had been flown above the capital in five years.
Not long after becoming an MP, I was honoured to speak at the unveiling of the Holodomor memorial on Calton Hill just a few metres along from the Ukrainian Club. What a deeply moving event it was - emotions were very close to the surface on that bitterly cold day - that marks the brutal forced famine and genocide of the Ukrainian people in the 1930s by Stalin’s regime. It’s a reminder of other tragedies visited upon the Ukrainian people by Russia in recent history, as well as their courage in overcoming adversity.
The resolve and guts shown by Ukraine in the face of Putin’s aggression and in defence of democracy and sovereignty is I know deeply respected by the people of Leith and the rest of Edinburgh, and their outpouring of compassion and determination to help has been incredible. The Ukrainian Club as well as the Ukrainian Catholic Church have been overwhelmed with donations and offers of voluntary help.
The remarkable Dnipro Kids Appeal, founded by Hibs fans following a UEFA match with Dnipro in 2005, successfully evacuated more than 50 orphans who are now settling into life in Scotland. Folk like the brilliant people from Edinburgh Direct Aid in Granton have driven lorries across Europe filled with supplies to support displaced families. Many others have been quick to sign up to offer their spare rooms to Ukrainian refugees.
Our local community’s willingness to help makes the UK Government’s insistence on Ukrainian refugees applying for visas all the more galling. While the SNP supports some aspects of the UK’s response to the Russian invasion, the lack of humanity and the overly complex paperwork tangles of the Home Office during this crisis has been contemptible. It is however not unexpected from a Tory Government happy to rip up the UN Refugee Convention through the new Nationality and Borders Act and to send those who have crossed the Channel in flimsy dinghies to be detained in Rwanda for processing.
My office, and those of other MPs across the country, has been inundated with letters and emails from anxious constituents who have family members in Ukraine, or have been matched with people through the Homes for Ukraine scheme. Desperate to know when they will be granted permission to travel here, they’ve encounte red act of the invasion is far-reaching. I recently secured a Westminster debate to call for action to address the risk of a global food crisis caused by the war.
With Russia and Ukraine ranking among the top three global exporters of wheat, maize, and fertiliser, the conflict is already starting to have grave consequences for food supply chains in some of the poorest parts of the world, with potentially grave consequences for some of the world’s poorest regions. Here in Scotland too, there could be alarming impacts on our farmers and producers, as well as on already soaring shop prices, unless the UK Government wakes up to this problem. In the meantime, we need to work with the international community to bring an end this conflict as soon as possible
The Ukrainian Club’s Independence commemorations this year will be especially poignant and significant. I know Leith and all of Scotland will be right behind them. ■
Holodomor 1932-1933 Eternal Memory memorial , erected by Scotland’s Ukrainian Community, November 2017