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Fortress Britain

Fortress Britain

How Priti Patel failed to grasp the scale and urgency of the Ukrainian refugee crisis

In a phone call last night with Volodymyr Zelensky, Boris Johnson said Ukraine had the “unwavering support of the British people”. Perhaps, but the British consular system seems to be a different matter.

Soon after the invasion Johnson said the UK was “way out in front in our willingness to help with refugees” and that the country could take in over 200,000. As of yesterday 750 visas had been granted to Ukrainian refugees and those applying have faced mixed messages, confusion and senseless bureaucracy.

Refugees in the Ukrainian city of Lviv wait for a train to Poland

Today Priti Patel, the home secretary, relaxed rules on attending visa centres to submit biometric information, but Ukrainians without family members already in the UK are still not covered.

28 February: Home secretary Priti Patel says the Home Office is creating a “bespoke humanitarian route” for British nationals and Ukrainians resident in the UK to bring their families into the country but the plan only covers “immediate” family members (spouses, long-term partners, children and grandchildren under 18 and the parents of grandchildren under 18). 

1 March: The scheme is widened to include siblings, adult children, in-laws, parents and extended family. The government says a new sponsorship visa will be introduced, allowing Ukrainians without family in the UK to be sponsored by companies, individuals or community groups and granting them a stay of up to 12 months. 

6 March: 150 Ukrainians are turned away by the UK border agencies at Calais and told to apply for visas at consulates in Brussels or Paris. France’s interior minister writes to Priti Patel, calling the UK response to the refugee crisis “totally inadequate”.  

7 March: Priti Patel falsely claims that the Home Office has set up a visa application centre for Ukrainian refugees at Calais. 

8 March: Ben Wallace says the Ministry of Defence would be willing to step in to help the Home Office process visa applications, saying “we could do more to make that processing much, much quicker”.  

The UK’s visa system for Ukrainian refugees is for now, extremely limited.

  • Only family members of British nationals and people with settled or pre-settled status are allowed to apply and applicants must be immediate family members, extended family members or family members of extended family to be eligible.
  • Families of Ukrainians who are in the UK temporarily for work or study are not eligible. 
  • There has been no indication of when the UK will begin accepting applications for the Local Sponsorship Scheme for Ukraine – the proposed visa programme for those without family in the UK.

And visas have proven difficult to access. 

  • Refugees applying online have reported that the website regularly crashes and is beset by technical problems that make it difficult to upload important documents. 
  • To finalise their visas, applicants have needed to attend a biometric appointment at a visa application centre (VAC). This will be waived from Tuesday but only for passport holders with family members in the UK. 
  • The government says it is “surging capacity” to process visas across the EU and is setting up a “pop-up” biometric centre in Lille. But the centre will not take bookings or walk-ins, and will only be accessible for refugees presenting at Calais who are deemed “vulnerable” by British authorities.  

The government says checks are necessary for reasons of “national security”, claiming concern about the possibility of Russian agents infiltrating the UK. 

Valentyna Klymova, a 69-year-old from Kharkiv, left Ukraine for Hungary nearly a fortnight ago. She made her way to Paris where she met her daughter, a UK resident, who planned to take her back to Britain. But she could not enter the country as she did not have a visa and, at the time, was not eligible for the Ukraine Family Visa Scheme (under the initial Home Office rules she did not count as “immediate” family). Even after the rules changed it took days of shuttling between different UK agencies in Paris to get her visa. Her daughter told the Guardian that the process “creates a kind of existential despair in Ukrainians trying to reach the UK”.

Ukrainian refugees queue at Prague’s foreigner police headquarters

Tetyana Tsybanyuk and her 22-year-old daughter Alena Semenova drove 2,500 kilometres across Europe hoping to reach close friends in Wales only to be blocked from getting on a ferry at Calais by British border guards. They don’t have family in the UK but could be eligible for sponsored visas. Until more news comes about the scheme, they are in limbo. “The wait drags on, but nothing happens,” said Semenova. “I have an overwhelming fear about the future.”

Maria Romanenko, a Ukrainian journalist, who did eventually manage to get into the UK with her British partner, told Tortoise that despite the fact she had arrived with a visa waiver she was approached by terrorism police during a two and half hour wait at the UK border: “They were sent to check up on me because they said that’s what they told to do and that arrivals from Ukraine had to be checked like that”. 

The EU has meanwhile waived the requirement for refugees fleeing Ukraine to claim asylum and given them the right to live, work and travel in member countries for up to three years visa-free. So far, the EU has taken in two million people.

Feedback for Patel:

  • “We don’t want to stand in this house and listen to plans and processes. We want dates, we want action… This is a disgrace.” Alec Shelbrooke, Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, House of Commons, 8 March.
  • “What happened to this country? In the Second World War they admitted almost immediately 70,000 Jewish people, and to find [Patel] hindering the progress of these exhausted, frightened, panicked women and their children… What has happened here? What happened to that England?” Sir Bob Geldof, London, 9 March.

Continue reading in today’s Sensemaker.

Past reporting

Immigration & Asylum

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