Sunday, November 27, 2022 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

UK response to Ukraine refugee crisis sparks outcry

Bipartisan condemnation of Britain’s slow humanitarian response to Ukrainians fleeing war has forced a streamlined process at the U.K.’s bureaucratic Home Office, but the limited approach is consistent with years of strict asylum policy, with more stringent legislation in the works.

LONDON (CN) — The United Kingdom government has been forced on the defensive this week following public outcry over a slow and inflexible system of taking in Ukrainian refugees. An online application process was announced by the U.K’s interior department, the Home Office, on Thursday, in the hope of simplifying and speeding up the processing of asylum seekers.

Of the more than 2 million people who have fled Ukraine since the outbreak of war just over two weeks ago, the U.K. has so far granted entry to less than 1,000 Ukrainian refugees. This compares to the arrival of over 20,000 Ukrainians in Italy, 80,000 in Germany, and more than 1.5 million in neighboring Poland.

The U.K. is the only European country that has maintained visa restrictions on Ukrainians fleeing war. The government has said it will only grant entry to Ukrainians with specific family connections, or who have been individually sponsored by a British resident or institution, such as a business or local authority.

In contrast, European Union member states have waived all visa restrictions on refugees fleeing Ukraine and allowed them access to housing, employment and social security for a minimum of one year. Many countries have also unilaterally offered refugees free food, travel, accommodation and medical treatment.

In addition, unlike EU countries, the U.K. has insisted that paperwork – including biometric checks – must be conducted before entry into British territory. The result has been a large build up of asylum seekers in the French port of Calais, the closest crossing point from Europe to the U.K. However, those arriving in Calais from Ukraine, regardless of their circumstances, have been redirected to embassies in Paris or Brussels for their visa applications to be processed.

French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin said the British response lacked humanity.

“When you've traveled 60 hours with your family, you don't send them back, at least that's what the French government thinks, you don't send them back to Paris or Brussels to get these visas," Darmanin said.

“So we're asking for a consulate in Calais to send English people to do these visas. I have called the British minister twice to do this,” he added.

On Monday, in response to cross-party criticism, U.K. Home Secretary Priti Patel told the House of Commons that “we have set up a bespoke [visa application center] en route to Calais,” but failed to make public the location of the processing center. Patel’s statement was met with ridicule by Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who told the Commons: “If she cannot tell us where this visa center is … then there is no hope or chance of Ukrainian families being able to find it themselves.”

The introduction of an online application system next week is expected to relieve pressure on British embassies and consulates around Europe, which are struggling to process the volume of visa applications being submitted, resulting in long delays for refugees.

But the new measures will not expand the means of access to U.K. refuge for Ukrainians. Patel had previously suggested that the government was working on a third route for those seeking asylum that would cater to Ukrainians “without ties to the U.K.” However, she was later apparently contradicted by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who told reporters: “We have two very, very generous routes already – so the family reunion route, which is uncapped, which could potentially see hundreds of thousands of people come to this country, plus the humanitarian route. Under that scheme, people can sponsor people coming from Ukraine.”

The government has yet to announce the full details of the sponsorship scheme.

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gives an update on the Russian invasion of Ukraine during a press conference at Downing Street in London on March 7, 2022. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali, Pool)

On Monday, during a session of Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Secretary Liz Truss was asked why the U.K. – given that it was the first country to receive intelligence that Russia would launch an invasion of Ukraine – was seemingly unprepared for an influx of refugees. Pointing the finger directly at Patel, Truss replied: “It's really a matter for the home secretary exactly how the visa process works.”

ADVERTISEMENT

In a subsequent session of the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.K. revealed that he had difficulty securing entry to the country for his own wife. Speaking on the complexity of the U.K.’s visa processing rules, Vadym Prystaiko drew a broader picture.

“When we reached agreement for the visa-free regime with the Europeans, which worked quite beautifully for almost 10 years, we never managed to open this particular nation," Prystaiko said. "I know that you have strict immigration policies, but all Europeans had them at the same time.”

He added, “We opened up to your citizens in 2005, so all these years we were allowing all your citizens to come, and then we had to face criticism within the country—‘Why are all the westerners coming with no visa, when we still have to wait in line?’ When the European Union opened, we had an even tougher time because we had to explain why the U.K. is the only one sticking out of the crowd.”

The British government appears to have been caught off guard by the outpouring of public sympathy for Ukrainian refugees, with the slow and restrictive approach to resettlement badly misjudging the public mood. Research from polling company YouGov suggests that 76% of the public support the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees.

The U.K. has for years maintained a tight border regime and fostered what's been called a hostile environment unsettled residents without "indefinite leave to remain" status under British immigration law. Refugees fleeing conflict zones in Central Asia, the Arabian peninsula, and Africa have frequently been caught up in the hardline approach. In particular, the Home Office has faced frequent criticism from human rights groups for deporting asylum seekers back to countries where they are at risk of murder, torture or political violence.

In 2017 Samim Bigzad, an Afghan refugee living in southern England, was illegally deported to Kabul by the Home Office. Bigzad had fled Afghanistan after the Taliban had threatened to behead him, and was removed from the U.K. despite a High Court judge having ruled in his favor. He was subsequently flown back to the U.K. Another Afghan national, Zainadin Fazlie, was executed by the Taliban in 2018 after being deported from Britain, where he had lived as a refugee for 16 years.

Similar cases have been reported by Zimbabwean nationals, with the Home Office accused of collaboration with the Zimbabwean government to deport refugees despite being unable to guarantee their safety.

Notwithstanding the schemes set up to support Ukrainian resettlement, the Home Office’s approach is set to get tougher. The Nationality and Borders Bill, currently before Parliament, seeks to create powers which will allow the government to reject asylum applications on the basis that a refugee could plausibly seek asylum in another country.

It will also permit the government to remove asylum seekers from British territory until their claim has been approved, and to prosecute refugees for arrival into Britain without entry clearance – a new offense that would carry a maximum possible sentence of four years imprisonment.

The United Nations has criticized the measures, stating that they would “risk the lives and well-being of vulnerable people” and “undermine, not promote, the government’s stated goal of improving protection for those at risk of persecution.”

The bill has reached a critical stage in Parliament, and it remains to be seen whether the rapidly shifting public mood and political pressure will influence its passage. For now, the approach taken towards Ukrainians – at least in tone – appears to be remarkably different.

In a statement earlier this week, Patel said: “Putin’s war on Ukraine is monstrous and unjustified and the government will stand with the people of Ukraine, both at home and abroad. Our Ukrainian humanitarian route will allow families to be reunited in the U.K. and our bespoke sponsor route will give safety to Ukrainians who have sadly been forced to flee their homes.”

“This agile response to the despicable Russian invasion is living proof of our New Plan for Immigration – doing what is fair and right to support people in genuine need,” she added.

Read the Top 8

Sign up for the Top 8, a roundup of the day's top stories delivered directly to your inbox Monday through Friday.

Loading
Loading...