Mon, 20 May 2024

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By Lord Watson of Wyre Forest
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Priti Patel Criticised For “Confusion” Over Ukrainian Refugee Plans


6 min read

Priti Patel has faced criticism in the Commons for the lack of clarity following her announcement that 100,000 additional Ukrainian refugees will be able to come to the UK under government plans.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper accused her counterpart of being “poorly prepared” for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the resulting increase in refugees from the country.

Patel announced in the Commons that the government was “stepping up” its efforts and had produced a "unique and tailored" plan that responded "directly to the needs and asks of the Ukrainian government".

But she dismissed calls from some MPs for all visa checks to be waived for those arriving from Ukraine, insisting that "security and biometric checks are a fundamental part of our visa approval process worldwide".

Patel said that family members of those in the UK who do not meet usual visa requirements would have them waived for 12 months following their arrival, and that all applications from Ukraine would be prioritised by officials.

She confirmed that 100,000 Ukrainians would be able "to seek sanctuary in the UK with access to work and public services", and that temporary worker visas for Ukrainian citizens would be extended.

"Putin's war on Ukraine is monstrous and unjustified," Patel said.

"The United Kingdom stands firmly with the people of Ukraine. And, as this House would expect, Britain is stepping up its role and playing its part in responding to the terrible situation on the ground in Ukraine."

However, a Home Office source confirmed Patel's statement described how many Ukrainians would be eligible as part of policy first announced over the weekend, not new measures.

Patel later took to Twitter to offer further explanation, adding "I am committed to ensuring the UK is as generous as possible to the people of Ukraine, just as we have been to the people of Afghanistan and Hong Kong, and further announcements will be made in due course."

Responding to the announcement, Cooper claimed Patel had failed to clarify who was eligible for the visas following a “weekend of complete confusion”. 

“The Home Secretary has just said she's announcing a bespoke humanitarian route, but it's extremely unclear from what she said what the details actually are or who it will apply to,” she said.

“The Ukrainian people have shown great bravery, but we know that there are, particularly, mothers and young children and elderly parents who have left to find sanctuary.

“The UK has always done its bit to help those fleeing war in Europe and it will come as a relief to many people who've been calling for action if the government is prepared to do more. 

“But I have to say to her: why is there so much confusion about this? The Russian invasion began five days ago and other countries responded with clear sanctuary arrangements immediately.” 

She continued: “We had a weekend of complete confusion. We still don't know what the arrangements are, why nothing worked out already? And how on earth is the Home Secretary so poorly prepared for something she's been warned about for so many weeks?”

Patel also faced criticism from Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle for announcing the measures at the end of her departmental questions, rather than in a separate statement.

He said MPs would have “benefitted from a statement” and encouraged Patel to return to the House the next day to answer questions. 

Downing Street announced on Sunday evening that those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine would be able to come to the UK if they have relatives here.

It said in a statement that the “temporary visa concessions” will “benefit many thousands of people who at this moment are making desperate choices about their future”.

But the government later faced strong criticism after it was clarified that only selected immediate family members would be eligible to apply.

Under the plans, visas have only been made available to a spouse or civil partner, an unmarried partner of at least two years, parents or their children if they are under the age of 18, or an adult relative you provide care for who lives with you due to a medical condition.

Some have also argued this was significantly less open than the system being operated by the European Union, which plans to accept Ukrainian refugees for up to three years without asking them to apply for visas or asylum.

Labour’s Yvette Cooper had initially praised Downing Street’s announcement as a “welcome first step forward”, but took a more critical tone once details of the system were released.

Writing on Twitter, she said: “What are they thinking? What about people struggling to get elderly parents here, or Ukrainians who can’t come stay with [a] sister or brother here?”

She said the policy was “shameful”, and urged the Home Office to both “immediately” extend the proposals to include wider family members and to also “set out a broader sanctuary route” to the UK.

“The UK has a duty to work with our allies to provide humanitarian assistance and support to those fleeing this horrific situation,” she said in a statement. 

“We must also work with the UN Refugee Agency to make sure contingency plans are ready for further support and sanctuary schemes that will be needed and be prepared to play our part in further international action to support refugees”.

A group of Tory MPs have also written to the Prime Minister calling for the visa process from those fleeing Ukraine to be relaxed. 

In a letter seen by The Guardian, the 37 MPs have called on the government to “act decisively” and “share responsibility” with other European countries.

“It is clear that this is not another migration crisis; this is a crisis of war. This should not be business as usual, we need sincere and immediate support for the Ukrainian people. The United Kingdom cannot flag or fail, our message must be clear: Ukrainian victims of war seeking refuge are welcome,” the letter reads. 

Signatories include former cabinet ministers Robert Buckland, Jeremy Hunt and Damian Green, as well as chair of the women and equalities committee Caroline Nokes and chair of the justice committee Bob Neill. 

Former Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith has also called on the government to relax visa rules, writing on Twitter that the UK should "rip up the usual bureaucracy" when it comes to those fleeing the conflict and "just say they are welcome".

"It's really important that the United Kingdom makes an immediate open, welcoming & warm hearted commitment of sanctuary to those who wish to leave Ukraine," he said.

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