Patel urged to do more to help Ukrainians come to the UK

Home Secretary Priti Patel’s measures to streamline the visa system were criticised for not going far enough.

10 March 2022

Home Secretary Priti Patel was urged to do more to make it easier for Ukrainians to find sanctuary in the UK after announcing a limited series of changes to the visa regime.

From Tuesday many Ukrainians will be able to apply online for permission to come under the scheme allowing family members to be reunited with relatives already settled in the UK.

But the British Red Cross said the quickest way of fixing the problem would be to remove the requirement for a visa, while the Refugee Council said Ms Patel’s announcement “does not go anywhere near far enough”.

Ministers have insisted that visa checks are required to make sure Vladimir Putin does not send Russian agents posing as refugees.

But the scale of the humanitarian crisis has led to demands for the UK to take in more Ukrainians, with up to four million people expected to flee the war zone.

So far around 2.2 million people have left in a crisis unseen in Europe since the Second World War.

The Home Office has come under pressure from opposition and Tory MPs – as well as the Ukrainian government – to simplify the system which allows family members of people settled in the UK to join their relatives.

Ms Patel said: “From Tuesday, I can announce that Ukrainians with passports will no longer need to go to a visa application centre to give their biometrics before they come to the UK.

“Instead, once their application has been considered and appropriate checks completed, they will receive direct notification that they’re eligible for the scheme and can come to the UK.

“In short, Ukrainians with passports will be able to get permission to come here fully online from wherever they are and will be able to give their biometrics once in Britain.

“This will mean that visa application centres across Europe can focus their efforts on helping Ukrainians without passports.”

While the European Union allows visa-free travel for Ukrainians fleeing the fighting, the UK insisted they are necessary to guarantee security.

Ms Patel told the Commons: “I am in daily contact with the intelligence and security agencies who are providing me with regular threat assessments.

“What happened in Salisbury showed what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is willing to do on our soil. It also demonstrated that a small number of people with evil intentions can wreak havoc on our streets.”

Ms Patel said she was able to change the visa regime following security agencies’ fresh advice.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson backed the need for continued checks.

He told reporters: “I think people do understand that when you have got large numbers of people leaving from a war zone – some of them still armed, perhaps not all of their identities completely clear, their motivations completely clear – it is responsible to have checks.”

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, whose urgent question resulted in Ms Patel’s appearance in the Commons, said the Government’s approach had been “shameful”.

The current visa route is restricted to family members of people settled in the UK.

Another promised route, allowing individuals and companies to sponsor Ukrainians to come to the UK, has yet to be established.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “The Home Office approach to visas has been the complete opposite, a complete shambles that is diminishing our reputation across the world.”

Andy Hewett, from the Refugee Council, said: “Whilst we welcome any step to ease the process for desperate Ukrainians in search of safety in this country, this announcement does not go anywhere near far enough.

“Rather than continuing with a system that requires Ukrainian refugees to apply for a visa, the Government urgently needs to temporarily waive visa requirements so that all Ukrainian families fleeing war and bloodshed can easily reach the UK and access the protection that is their fundamental right under the Refugee Convention.”

Mike Adamson, chief executive of British Red Cross, said:  “The simplest way of fixing this quickly is to remove visa requirements for Ukrainians who want to come here, at least temporarily, in line with the actions of countries across Europe.”

Mr Johnson said that more than a thousand visas have been granted by the UK.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
(PA Graphics)

In Ireland – a smaller country, further away from Ukraine – more than 2,500 Ukrainian refugees have already arrived.

Ukrainians seeking to come to the UK have faced a series of bureaucratic hurdles and difficulties in obtaining appointments to complete the necessary paperwork and armed forces minister James Heappey said British troops could help in processing claims.

Capacity has expanded to 13,000 applications a week, additional staff have been deployed across the European Union and a helpline has been set up, officials said.

The situation has been especially chaotic for Ukrainians at Calais seeking permission to cross the channel. A visa centre was due to be established in Lille while another site is now being set up in Arras.

It is understood the latest visa application centre to open – just under 70 miles from Calais – will only handle the cases of people who have been referred there and is anticipated to operate along similar lines of a small “pop-up” site now established in Lille.

Some refugees who were moved from Calais to Lille have now been told they need to make their own way to Paris; others have been told their visa applications will be processed at a centre in Arras, not Lille.

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