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Coronavirus: Home Office ‘tells 80-year-old cancer patient she must return to Ukraine’ despite travel ban

‘Absurd’ case comes as department under pressure to update immigration guidance over Covid-19 outbreak 

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Sunday 22 March 2020 21:47 GMT
Why is the Home Office getting so many immigration decisions wrong?

An elderly woman with lung cancer has been told by the Home Office she must return to Ukraine despite a ban on all air traffic to the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, her lawyer has said.

The Ukrainian national, 80, was in the UK visiting family and had planned to return home before her visa expired on 19 March, but was unable to do so due to a travel restrictions.

Alex Piletska, a trainee solicitor at Turpin and Miller who represents the woman, contacted the Home Office’s newly established “coronavirus immigration helpline” to ask for advice.

According to Ms Piletska, the civil servant she spoke to first stated that her client could travel by car back to Ukraine, and when questioned how a woman of her age could do this, said: “We would expect foreign nationals to make every effort to return home”.

When the solicitor pointed out the government’s advice for people over 70 to self-isolate, the Home Office staff member reportedly said this advice applied only to British nationals, claiming this was government policy.

The elderly Ukrainian national, who has visited the UK each year for the last 20 years and never overstayed her visa, has now applied for a visa to remain for an extended period in the UK — at a cost of more than £2,000.

It comes as the Home Office is under mounting pressure to update its immigration guidance in order to ensure that foreign nationals who cannot return to their home countries as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak are not treated as immigration offenders.

On 17 February, the Home Office announced that Chinese citizens in the UK would automatically have their visas extended without their needing to do anything, as long as they met certain conditions.

Lawyers are urging the Home Office to extend this to all foreign nationals currently in the UK whose visas are set to expire in the coming months.

Describing her elderly client’s current state, Ms Piletska told The Independent: “She’s very stressed. She’s terrified of the coronavirus in itself. The idea that she would then make this long journey across Europe is absurd. It would be absurd even without the pandemic and if the countries she’d have to travel through hadn’t closed their borders. She’s now also worried that her application will be refused on top of everything else.“

Ms Piletska said many other foreign nationals would be in a similar situation, unable to leave the UK in time for their visa expiry date due to travel restrictions or the need to self-isolate, with some in an even worse position than her client it they couldn’t afford to apply to extend their leave.

“There will be people who have just come for a short trip who must be bewildered at the idea of having to navigate our immigration system. This comes in the same week that the Windrush review has come out, and while it’s not exactly the same, the general insensitivity to people’s circumstances can be seen here as well.

“We are expecting a new policy to be announced any day now that we hope will be comprehensive enough to cover everyone affected by the coronavirus. Otherwise, people will become overstayers through no fault of their own.”

A series of recommendations published by the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association (ILPA) earlier this week calls on the Home Office to adopt a “flexible and pragmatic” approach to anyone affected by the Covid-19 pandemic by granting an automatic extension of limited leave to remain for any foreign national currently in the UK to at least September 2020.

It also urges the department to confirm to third parties such as employers, landlords and the NHS that their residence in the UK remains lawful, in order to prevent them falling foul of the hostile environment.

The briefing states: “International measures reducing the impact of Covid-19 are affecting foreign nationals who either wish to enter for example to take up a job or are currently in the UK and are unable to leave or apply to extend their stay. It is also having an impact on businesses who rely on them.

“An urgent comprehensive policy update is needed now as individuals are already facing situations which compromise their UK immigration position.”

Sonia Lenegan, legal director at ILPA, told The Independent it was ”difficult” to see why the Home Office had not updated its immigration guidance, and that its failure to do so was ”no doubt contributing to the confusion of those advising on the helpline”.

She added: “There is no justification for prioritising immigration controls over the public health. These are unprecedented times, and the response from the Home Office must match this, and quickly.”

The Home Office said it was ”actively putting plans in place to support people whose immigration status has been affected”.

A spokesperson added: “An initial phase of visa extensions for Chinese nationals who are unable to return has already been announced and we will shortly be setting out arrangements for other foreign nationals. In line with the arrangements already announced, we will continue to take a compassionate and pragmatic approach.

“To keep people informed and to provide support, a dedicated helpline has been established for those who want to discuss their individual circumstances.”

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