Under intense public pressure, the UK government has made some grand announcements about its ‘new offer’ for Ukrainian refugees seeking asylum. But once again, the reality is very different to the rhetoric. What is being offered is neither asylum, nor a route to refugee status. It remains the case that the only asylum route currently available to Ukrainians without close family ties is in a small boat crossing the channel – or hidden in the back of a lorry. Our borders remain as firmly shut as ever before.
On 27 February I wrote that the government’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis was a sham and the clearest example yet that it really has no intention of opening up and implementing safe routes for refugees.
At that point, its ‘offer’ was to extend the visas of Ukrainians already in the UK, and to expedite the process and waive the fees and salary bar for UK citizens who wished to bring immediate family members into the UK. No new or extended ‘categories’ of Ukrainian citizens were to be given entry; it was just to be a little less costly and a bit quicker for those who were already entitled to apply.
Ukrainian visas: change under pressure
Since then, enormous pressure has been placed on the government to make a better offer. On 1 March, it announced that it would allow and facilitate visas for extended family members of Ukrainian citizens who are living in the UK or who are married to UK nationals (adult children and parents) and that it would waive salary and language requirements to do so.
It also said there would be a new route, a ‘sponsorship’ route, where individuals, community groups or employers could pay for the entry of a Ukrainian national and support them (housing, employment and other support) while here. This route is not yet open and there are no further details about it at present.
The extended family route will be open from Friday 4 March. The route can be accessed from any country where there is a British consulate (the capital city). It requires an electronic application, attendance by appointment at a visa application centre (VAC) for biometric data to be taken, and then a wait for a visa to be granted.
Essentially, it is a process to be undertaken once a refugee has already reached safety and has access to some support in completing the process.
How generous is the new visa scheme?
Irrespective of the extent to which what is being offered is really ‘new’ (any UK citizen can apply to have a visa for family members and any foreign nationals in the UK on a visa can apply to have it extended or changed), what is being offered is not asylum or a route to refugees status. Nor does it match the scale of need (in respect of those who want to come to the UK).
The primary difference to normal visa requirements is that the process will be expedited, fees will be waived and there will be no need for the UK citizen to prove capacity to support the family member.
A Ukrainian (or anyone fleeing danger) who makes it to the UK, under the 1951 Refugee Convention, can apply for asylum. But, the only asylum route currently available to Ukrainians without close family ties is in a small boat crossing the channel – or hidden in the back of a lorry. Our borders remain as firmly closed as ever before.
Lack of generosity and empathy
The new guidance for Ukrainians (issued 2 March) is meanly drafted.
They are advised of what they must do if they want to apply to the UK. There is no hint of a welcome or recognition of their plight. There is no commitment to provide support to help them make an application or ease the process, although there is a helpline number. If they cannot make it to a VAC or cannot prove their entitlement to apply, there is no advice or support offered. Most of those who are eligible will be either elderly and may not speak English, or will be just out of childhood.
The government has staffed the VACs (and sent additional staff) but there appears to be no staff at the borders to identify who might be eligible to come to the UK and enable them to get to a VAC.
Leaving other countries to take the burden
It is estimated that about a million people have already fled Ukraine. Most will want to stay close by in the hope that their stay will not be long. They will want to be among their compatriots and in a country that understands their situation and is compassionate. Ukraine is being fast tracked to join the EU and many will want to settle (if they have to) in an EU country.
In comparison with Eastern European or EU countries, relatively few Ukrainians will want to settle in the UK. Those who will want to come here are likely to have knowledge of the country and speak English. Not only is the UK government failing to meet its humanitarian responsibilities, it is failing to support its European neighbours and allies.
This is not a government doing everything in its power to help refugees but a government seeking only to allow access to those who can successfully navigate its systems and bureaucracy.