Ukrainian passport holders will be able to apply for UK visas online from next week, the home secretary has announced, following fierce criticism of the Home Office’s response to refugees fleeing conflict.
Those with a Ukrainian passport and family settled in the UK will no longer need to visit application centres in other European countries to apply for a visa from next Tuesday.
Home secretary Priti Patel said she had decided to alter the Ukraine Family Scheme after receiving new advice from security services.
The government has only granted 760 visas so far to refugees fleeing Ukraine despite tens of thousands of applications to the family route having been submitted so far.
Currently, Ukrainians must apply at visa application centres outside the UK, which has led to chaotic scenes and reports of staff at visa centres taking “a commercial and opportunistic approach” by encouraging refugees to pay extra for an earlier appointment.
The Home Office was yesterday accused of avoiding easy solutions which would make it much easier for Ukrainians to come to the UK.
Immigration lawyer Helen Manis told the Home Affairs Select Committee that the government could waive the carrier’s liability that means airlines can be fined if they allow a Ukrainian refugee to board a flight without a visa.
Zoe Bantleman, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners' Association, said the Home Office could instead remove Ukraine from the list of nationalities needing a visa to visit the UK.
She said border staff could assess refugees’ security risk at the border and, “once in the UK with a visitor route, the home secretary has already allowed a concession for people to switch to other immigration routes”.
“All she would need to do is remove a single word from the immigration rules and this would allow Ukrainians to board planes in the same [manner that] Americans and South Americans can board planes to the UK without changing any of the other restrictions,” Bantleman said.
Manis and Bantleman gave evidence yesterday to HASC alongside Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council and Iryna Terlecky, a board member of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain.
Asked why the government has simplified its visa offer, Solomon said it “looks like” the government wanted to limit the number of people coming to the UK from Ukraine.
“In comparison with other neighbours we do look rather mean spirited,” he said.
He said the government “seems to be adopting an approach which is paperwork over people – people who have lost everything through no fault of their own”.
The Refugee Council chief exec said the government has chosen to “effectively tinker with a standard visa scheme which is a managed migration route, rather than respond in a way that is required to an urgent humanitarian crisis”.
He called this a “gross oversight” that sends out the message to Ukrainians that “we are not welcoming you”.
Patel has refused to waive the requirement for Ukrainians to have visas to visit the UK, citing security concerns.
But Solomon said the government can fast track Ukrainians into the country, do the necessary checks and then grant them refugee status.
“I recognise that security is a legitimate concern. It was a concern when we evacuated thousands of people from Kabul last summer. But there are mechanisms that we can use to address these challenges.”
Foreshadowing Patel’s announcement, Solomon said there is already a Home Office app that could be used by Ukrainians with passports to take biometric information. He said those without passports could be assessed by UK border staff.
“We see people turning up to our borders with all kinds of challenges and we deal with them. Other European countries have security issues and are not using this rationale. I think the government is trying to find a reason to justify its very restricted approach,” Solomon said.
Bantleman said the government has “wide powers” to handle security concerns, adding that most of the people coming are elderly people, women and children and unlikely to be security risks. She said security concerns should be weighed against the reality of “millions” of people being displaced.
She said Patel could also use existing laws which would allow Ukrainians to enter the UK “in the event of mass influx of displaced persons”.
Bantleman also raised concerns that the UK’s visa system could put Ukrainians at risk of trafficking and exploitation from gangs of smugglers.
She said this would be “counterproductive”, given the home secretary’s emphasis rooting out human trafficking in the nationality and borders bill.
Terlecky, who represents the Ukrainian community in the UK, said the process of applying for visas has been “bureaucratic and slow”.
“People are desperately worried. We are getting hundreds of emails probably every day, including people who have gone over to Europe to collect relatives and are still facing huge difficulties in getting the right paperwork at the right time,” she said.
She said the fact “everybody needs an immigration lawyer” is an “indictment” of the system.
Unaccompanied children visa
The committee agreed to write to Patel, asking what measures she will introduce to help unaccompanied children trying to reach the UK, after hearing about the issue.
Bantleman highlighted a case where an unaccompanied child travelled to Poland, trying to join family in the UK. They were initially promised their visa would be processed in one day, but were then told it would take 12 weeks.
Solomon said he had heard “there could be tens of thousands of children who are unaccompanied … that are going to be in need of protection.”
He said it is imperative that the government creates a specific scheme for unaccompanied children.
Amid the delays at visa centres, Bantleman warned of reports that staff employed by TLS – the company that manages visa services for the government – are taking “a commercial and opportunistic approach” by recommending that people pay extra to get an appointment sooner.
Government ‘must work with local authorities’
Solomon also said it is “vital” that the government learns from the Afghan rescue mission and “works with local authorities” to resettle refugees.
"We saw a terrible situation with Afghans, where they were being placed in hotels without LAs knowing. We can’t have that situation with Ukrainians,” he said.
He said the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities needs to ensure adequate resources are put into the system to provide support for Ukrainians when they arrive.
Solomon also raised concerns about the planned humanitarian pathway for Ukrainians without family members in the UK. He said he had spoken to Home Office officials, who were unable to share info about the scheme but said it will be forthcoming soon.
He said that it could be weeks before the humanitarian route is introduced but “the need is here and now” and expressed concern that eligibility “could be quite restrictive”.