The UK’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has not been good enough - our visa scheme must change
It is now over two weeks since Vladimir Putin’s Russia illegally invaded Ukraine on 24 February. In that time around two million people have been displaced.
Numbers are likely to rise further in coming weeks as Ukrainians flee for their lives - and from war crimes. I write this after news of a strike on a maternity hospital in Mariupol.
The UK government’s response has simply not been good enough. Despite claiming to be at the forefront of the effort of European nations to give sanctuary to those forced to leave their homes and loved ones we have to date only done the bare minimum.
As it stands, only those meeting narrowly defined rules based on family relationships are entitled to come here. Even then they have been met with bureaucratic hurdles and confusion as to how to access the scheme. The flow of announcements from ministers, sometimes contradictory, has seemed detached from the reality of the situation facing those attempting to come to the UK.
The UK’s response cannot be to sit by while labyrinthine processes ensure only a trickle of people make it to our shores
It has been hard enough for us in Westminster to keep track of whether people should head to visa application centres, such as Calais, or embassies in other countries. It must be simply impossible for the people themselves who need help and support.
Last Wednesday, the Home Affairs Committee took evidence from Ukrainian Ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, who described the challenge of meeting traditional visa requirements in the midst of a war. People who are unlikely to have the necessary documentation are likely to be particularly vulnerable, including unaccompanied children. The UK’s response to this cannot be to sit by while labyrinthine processes ensure only a trickle of people make it to our shores.
We pay tribute to organisations, such as the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, the Refugee Council and Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, from who the Committee also heard last week, doing all they can to help people navigate these processes. But they shouldn’t have to.
The government needs to change its approach - urgently. The UK has a moral duty to help. The whole country recognises this, as do Members on both sides of the House.
Given the gravity of the situation, just saying that the UK is leading in helping Ukrainian refugees is not good enough. If ministers are truly committed to ensuring that the UK is a place of sanctuary, the government must implement an approach to visas that reflects the reality of the situation.
We cannot have people bogged down with demands to supply documentation they don’t have and are unlikely to be able to get. There must also be a vast improvement in how any Ukraine visa scheme is communicated and operated on the ground, with a common sense approach to our security.
Immigration minister Kevin Foster will be appearing before the Home Affairs Committee this coming Wednesday. By that time, we will expect to have seen a material change in the UK’s approach.
The Home Secretary’s latest statement to the House on Thursday announced that Ukrainian passport holders can complete applications online, with their biometrics being taken in the UK.
However, this still means that those without Ukrainian passports, or who do not have access online, will still have to attend visa application centres and provide biometric information. These will be some of the most vulnerable Ukrainians.
Ukrainian nationals coming to the United Kingdom to be reunited with their families do not have to pay for their visa. However, the Home Office’s private sub-contractor TLSContact has been offering fleeing Ukrainians an “enhanced service”. In return for the payment of a fee - apparently some £200 – they can get quicker appointments.
To seek to make profit from Ukrainians escaping war, already ensnared in complicated bureaucracy, is simply wrong.
At the time of writing, we await further details regarding the broader Humanitarian Sponsorship Pathway already announced by the Government, which again will require a visa application for Ukrainians fleeing their homes to come to the UK.
It is not enough to just make announcements. Promises must be delivered. The public want this. MPs across the House want this. It is up to the government to now ensure that the United Kingdom is a true place of welcome for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Dame Diana Johnson is the Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North and chair of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.