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The UK and Ukrainian refugees

The UK and Ukrainian refugees


Two weeks on from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the UK has only granted 760 visas to Ukrainian refugees. Why?

It’s two weeks since Russia invaded Ukraine.

“As the Russian invasion intensifies in Ukraine more than two million refugees have now fled the country according to the United Nations.”

BBC News

That exodus has created Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since the Second World War.

More than a million refugees have crossed into Poland alone. Just over the border from Ukraine, it’s the first country many have arrived in, and Poles have been quick to welcome them.

“The question why for us doesn’t exist, I’m just here because that’s what I need to do.I I just want to help them, I need to find out what they need and do everything so they’re gonna feel calm and safe.””

Piotr Szalyga, a volunteer speaking to BBC News

Volunteers have queued up to offer Ukrainian refugees food and places to stay for as long as they need it. Pushchairs have been left at train stations, ready for Ukrainian mothers arriving without one.

Because Poland neighbours Ukraine it has some cultural similarities, which is why many refugees will hope to stay there for now.

But others will want to go elsewhere in Europe.


Faced with a movement of people not seen in decades, the European Union has offered a quick route to temporary settlement for Ukrainian passport holders, bypassing overburdened asylum systems. 

Now, contrast that with the UK’s response, which has been stuttering at best.

“Well Priti Patel’s situation this week has been very embarrassing for the government.”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

Matt d’Ancona is an editor at Tortoise.

“The numbers of refugees that the UK’s accepted compared to other countries is so minuscule…”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

A fortnight after the invasion began the UK  had only granted 760 visas to Ukrainian refugees. Ireland had issued 2,000 through the simplified EU route.

“The system is so horribly complicated… whereas the European Union has basically just announced a visa waiver, the UK has kind of gone through a hokey cokey process of chopping and changing the process as it exists.”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

The government says 200,000 Ukrainians will be able to come to the UK through two newly created schemes, but there are conditions attached. 

The first allows those fleeing the conflict to join relatives already living in Britain, and the other promises to let people and organisations sponsor Ukrainians and match them with a family – irrespective of whether they have links to the UK or not.

Those people also need to pass security checks and meet biometric visa requirements.

“The practical reality is an utter shambles. You have people who’ve come a very long way… in the most emotionally straightened circumstances it’s impossible to imagine, got to Calais and been told to go to Paris, or found that they need to present all sorts of documentation… on very complicated online forms.”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

The French government has accused the UK of  “lacking humanity” for failing to issue visas in Calais where several hundred refugees were turned away because they didn’t have the right paperwork.

And those that did have the paperwork were advised to travel to Brussels or Paris to fill out complicated forms. 

Priti Patel says the Home Office has sent extra staff to visa processing centres to speed up the process.

“Let’s be clear, this is the first scheme that’s up and running in the world in this short period of time… So I’m surging staff across all application centres across the entire European Union as well as in the border countries such as Poland, where I was the other day and obviously huge numbers of people are coming through.”

Priti Patel, Home Secretary

So far, 17,700 applications from Ukrainians wanting to re-join relatives have been started… a fraction of those have been granted… So what does this tell us about the UK’s attitude to immigration?


When the Russian invasion started, a YouGov poll suggested that 63 per cent of Britons supported introducing a scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees. That figure rose to 76 per cent a few days later.  

That’s higher than last August, when Afghan refugees were fleeing the Taliban.

“I think one of the very delicate, sensitive issues that is going to become a bigger issue as this goes on longer is the question of ethnicity… there’s no question that Western European nations generally, and perhaps the UK specifically, treats incomers differently on the basis of their ethnic background.”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

And as a humanitarian crisis unfolds in Europe, people around Priti Patel continue to have their eyes on public opinion.

“They always quote what happened to Germany with Syrian refugees. Angela Merkel introduced a very generous policy which enabled a very large number of Syrians to come to Germany and it was popular at the time in Germany and then it became spectacularly unpopular very quickly and Patel and her circle always say, we don’t want to do an Angela, we don’t want to do a Merkel, and that’s the argument.”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

The Home Secretary is looking to the future.

“At the moment everyone says they want thousands of Ukrainians to come to the UK but in two years time, they’ll be furious with the government that there are thousands of Ukrainians in the UK. So that’s the tension.”

Matt d’Ancona, Tortoise

The UK government insists it stands “shoulder-to-shoulder” with the Ukrainian people, and on many things it has. But If Boris Johnson wants to be seen to be leading the West’s response against Russia, he may need to put domestic politics to one side, to get this right too.

Today’s story was written and produced by Imy Harper.