We are urging the UK government to act alongside its European neighbours to play a full and immediate part in receiving those fleeing the terrible violence in Ukraine, and to call for an immediate ceasefire and peace.

In just one week, over a million people have fled Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion. This ‘incredibly fast-rising exodus of people’, as UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi describes it, has prompted a swift and forceful expression of support from the EU and particularly from the states neighbouring Ukraine. While many European countries, including Ireland, have waived visa requirements for Ukrainians, offering a three-year temporary protection status, the UK government has retained but modified its visa requirements for residents of Ukraine.

On 2nd March, the Home Secretary Priti Patel announced that eligibility criteria for visas have been relaxed, so that people coming from Ukraine no longer have to meet the standard language requirements and salary thresholds. The ‘Ukrainian Family Scheme’ also broadens the category of family members that British nationals and settled citizens are permitted to bring to the UK. The category now includes parents, grandparents, adult offspring and siblings. Visa application fees have been waived, and the government has committed to extend work permits for some temporary Ukrainian workers.

The government estimates that several hundred thousand Ukrainians are now able to come to the UK. However, many organisations have voiced their concerns that these numbers are not realistic under current rules, and that the changes to increase access don’t go far or fast enough. The ‘humanitarian sponsorship pathway’ that the government has introduced, which would open up a route to the UK for Ukrainians without family ties, matching them with ‘individuals, charities, businesses, and community groups,’ will take considerable time to get up and running. As a point of comparison, it took over five months for the Afghan Community Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) to be launched following its announcement, and that scheme is still not resettling people from the region itself.

The infrastructure to support the government’s new ‘bespoke humanitarian support package’ is also not yet in place, as one Ukrainian resident of Oxford, assisted by Asylum Welcome, discovered on Wednesday. Prior to the Russian invasion, he had applied for a permit for his mother to join him in the UK. On the 23rd February, one day before the conflict began, his mother’s permit was refused. As it stands, his mother, currently in Ukraine, has been told that she is eligible to come to the UK through the Family Scheme. However, the scheme is not yet open for applications, so we cannot say how long she will be waiting. We are expecting a sharp increase in these types of cases over the coming days. We have also been providing support to other Ukrainians needing help, including one Ukrainian national who has already submitted an asylum claim, and another who would, under normal circumstances, be a candidate for deportation.

[Update 07/03] The Ukrainian Family Scheme is now open for applications. Currently, these must be made online from outside the UK. Applicants must still travel to a Visa Application Centre in Lviv or in another country to submit biometrics as part of the process. The Scheme is open to Ukrainian nationals who were residing in Ukraine before 1 Jan 2022 and the immediate family members of Ukrainian nationals who are applying to the scheme. They must also have been resident in Ukraine before 1 Jan 2022. UK family members must either be British, have indefinite leave to remain, settled status or PR, or have refugee status/humanitarian protection in the UK. Family members in the UK may be joined by children of any age, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren, and parents of adult UK residents.

The 24/7 helpline for support with the process is +44 808 164 8810 (0808 164 8810 if you’re in the UK).

Providing Support Locally

We continue to receive enquiries from individuals whose families are trapped in Ukraine, and while we are relieved to be able to inform them that a safe route exists, we don’t know when it will become operational. While the pathways opened up by the government go some way to responding to the unfolding crisis in Ukraine, these changes to the visa requirements are overshadowed by the impending Borders Bill that will criminalise Ukrainian refugees who make their own way to the UK, perhaps without family ties. This frightening prospect could become a reality in less than a month’s time. More information on that here.

As a small organisation, we are gearing ourselves up to offer advice and practical support to more people fleeing Ukraine and seeking to come to the UK. We are particularly concerned for the welfare of many non-white residents of Ukraine who were studying or working and who are now facing violence and discrimination at the borders of neighbouring states. Asylum and refugee rights are universal, and we call on our government respond to this specific need.

We welcome any financial help to assist us in extending our advice and support for those arriving in – or seeking to come to – the UK, fleeing Ukraine and other countries suffering from violence. To donate please click here. We also highlight local organisations seeking to get much-needed practical and financial help to those fleeing Ukraine, such as the Oxford Polish Association, who are appealing for donations in cash or kind, Oxford Help for Ukraine, and the Oxford University Ukrainian Society. https://www.facebook.com/OxfordHelpForUkraine

Calling Upon the Government to Act

Update (16:30, 09/03/2022): Since the start of the war, almost 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine, with the UNHCR predicting up to 4 million in the coming months. Having launched its Family Scheme for Ukrainians on the 2nd March, the British government has granted only 750 visas, despite having received 22,000 applications, and is coming under significant criticism for its ‘lack of humanity’ in the face of this crisis. The scheme offers Ukrainians with relatives in the UK the right to stay for up to three years, but critics say the policy falls short of the UK’s international obligations, is a mere gesture in comparison to the EU response, and is itself confusing and slow.

As the scene in Ukraine rapidly deteriorates, we reiterate our call on the UK government to become part of the solution. Instead of creating additional confusion and hoops to jump through, the UK should open its borders to all individuals displaced by the war and scrap any pre-arrival visa requirement.