Behind the scenes

Ukrainian refugees: why has the UK granted only 300 visas?

Those fleeing war in Ukraine have reported technical difficulties and lack of support

The UK government is under growing pressure to grant more visas for Ukrainian refugees after it emerged that only 300 had been issued as of yesterday.

The Home Office said a total of 17,700 visa applications have been started under the government’s Ukraine Family Scheme, which launched on 4 March. Three days later, 8,900 applications had been submitted, while 4,300 applicants had made appointments to submit their biometric details.

Of these, 640 applications had been confirmed, and 300 visas issued. More than two million people have fled the war in Ukraine, with the majority seeking safety in neighbouring Poland, which has taken in 1.2 million refugees, according to the United Nations.

Technical difficulties and delays 

The Guardian reported that Ukrainians attempting to flee to safety in the UK have described their “intense frustration and anger at the bureaucratic hurdles and technical difficulties” in trying to get a visa under the new scheme. 

Applicants told the paper they have been left in unfamiliar countries “wrestling with the complex application process” and hindered further by “difficulties uploading crucial documents or the application website was crashing”. Others have complained that there are “no appointment slots available to finalise their applications” or found themselves being asked to “post supporting documents to an office in Wandsworth”.

And Ukrainian refugees arriving in Calais have faced uncertainty and delays, with almost 600 refugees stuck in the French port town, reported the BBC. Many said they have been turned away at the border for “for lack of paperwork”. The French authorities told the broadcaster that “almost 300 people have been turned away while trying to cross to the UK”. 

Some refugees told the BBC that they had been told to go to Paris to apply for the visa, where they have “faced a wait of more than a week” for an appointment. 

On Monday, Home Secretary Priti Patel denied that refugees were being turned back in the French port town, and said her department was in the process of setting up an application centre. “We have staff in Calais, we have support on the ground. It is wrong to say we’re just turning people back, we’re absolutely not, we’re supporting those that have been coming to Calais,” she said.

But the Daily Mirror’s chief reporter Andy Lines tweeted a picture of a poster in a youth hostel in Calais that appeared to suggest that visas would not be delivered to the town, and directed people to fill out an online form before going to visa centres in Paris or Brussels. 

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has criticised the number of visas issued for Ukrainian refugees as “shockingly low and painfully slow”.  

After the publication of the Home Office figures, she tweeted: “Just 250 since yesterday. At this rate it would be weeks before many families reunite. Urgent action needed.”

She also questioned why there were so many reports of Ukrainians in the French town unable to apply for a visa because there was no official available to process applications, reported The Guardian

“I hope the home secretary is going to deliver some of the promises she has made, but there is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality that is badly, badly letting Ukrainian families down,” Cooper said.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said the government should be offering a “simple route to sanctuary” for those feeling Ukraine, and criticised the Home Office as “in a complete mess”, said the BBC. 

Meanwhile, Amnesty International UK suggested “history is repeating itself” after the response to last year’s crisis in Afghanistan.

Refugee and migrant rights director Steve Valdez-Symonds said the Home Office was “once again too slow and too bureaucratic in response to a refugee crisis that almost everyone saw coming”. 

The UK visa routes open to Ukrainian refugees

Under the UK’s recently extended family visa scheme, Ukrainians with parents, grandparents, children and siblings already in the UK are allowed to stay for up to three years. 

Another route for Ukrainian refugees is through sponsorship by an individual or business. 

But the offer “does not match that of EU countries”, said ITV. Some have already waived visa rules for Ukrainian refugees, allowing them to enter EU countries for up to three years without first having to seek asylum. 

It is thought that Patel could be examining “legal options” to create a “humanitarian route”, which would offer all Ukrainians seeking refuge the right to come to the UK, whether or not they have family ties to the UK, in a scheme similar to the EU’s.

But Prime Minister Boris Johnson appeared to talk down the possibility of such a route being introduced, telling reporters on Monday: “What we won’t do is have a system where people can come into the UK without any checks or any controls at all, I don’t think that is the right approach,” the Independent reported.

“But what we will do is have a system that is very, very generous,” he added. 

Johnson continued: “As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, people are going to want to see this country open our arms to people fleeing persecution, fleeing a war zone.

“I think people who have spare rooms who want to receive people coming from Ukraine will want us to have a system that enables them to do that. And that is already happening.”

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