On the morning of 9th March, the Home Affairs Committee held a one-off evidence session to discuss the Home Office policy concerning refugees fleeing Ukraine. Vadym Prystaiko, the Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, was interviewed alongside representatives from the Refugee Council, the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain, and the team immigration lawyers working pro bono on Ukrainian immigration cases.
The Ukrainian ambassador informed the committee that, as of 9th March, 750 visas had been issued through the Ukrainian Family Scheme, whilst 22,000 applications had been made. He calculated that more than seven million people have already been displaced, with more than 1.2 million people arriving in Poland, and around 700,000 people arriving in other European countries. Prystaiko estimates the number of Ukrainians currently in the UK at 50-60,000 – so he believes that 100,000 is a reasonable estimate of the number of Ukrainians who might come to the UK as a result of the invasion. The ambassador expressed his concern about the fact that the Ukraine Family Scheme is only open to those with permanent residence in the UK; those on student, work or other time-limited visas are not eligible to make applications for their family members to join them.
When asked what more the UK government could do to assist Ukrainian civilians, the answer was clear and unanimous: temporarily waive visa restrictions. Several suggestions were made as to how this could happen. The Home Secretary could remove Ukraine from the list of countries who have to apply for visitor permits, allowing Ukrainians to arrive as visitors then switch to another immigration status on arrival. Another solution would be to waive the carrier’s liability for airline companies, permitting people fleeing Ukraine to travel to Britain visa-free; then UK border officers could gather the necessary biometric information and grant temporary leave to remain for six months.
The third, and arguably best, option would be to temporarily waive the visa application process, allow people to come to the UK by any means, fast-track their asylum applications, and grant them full refugee status. This would allow people fleeing Ukraine the rights associated with full refugee status. Any of these options would be less complex and bureaucratic than the current situation. In response to the government’s security concerns resulting from waiving visas, the respondents highlighted that mechanisms do currently exist to assess whether people pose a security threat upon arrival in the UK; this is what happened in the recent evacuation from Kabul.
When Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, was asked how the UK government was doing in terms of assisting people fleeing Ukraine, this was his response:
‘Unfortunately, I don’t think we’re in a very good place. We’re looking at the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War. We have a scheme in place that’s only issued hundreds of visas to allow Ukrainians to come here. We have Ukrainians queueing up in Calais, at the visa application centre in Poland, unable to access documentation. I think the government is making a fundamental error here: it’s not adopting a refugees-first approach, which it should be adopting. It seems to be adopting an approach which is “paperwork over people”, people who have lost everything through no fault of their own. Instead, what they’ve chosen to do, it would appear, is 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. I think that is a gross oversight by this government. I think it unfortunately sends a message to Ukrainians that “we’re not welcoming you”. We’re not creating a system that is quick, fair and efficient to enable those Ukrainians to come to the UK who want to come here.”
The bottom line: temporarily waive visa requirements for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine. It’s the simplest and most effective solution to the current crisis, and it’s what the British public want the government to do.