Ukraine war: French interior minister warns that refugees could be ‘pushed to take small boats’ by UK visa delays

Priti Patel says a new visa processing centre is being set up en route to Calais

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Editor
Monday 07 March 2022 16:35
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Refugees Welcome: The Independent launches campaign to help Ukraine's refugees

The French interior minister has warned that a failure to process Ukrainian refugees’ visas quickly could push some into taking small boats across the English Channel.

Gerald Darmanin wrote to Priti Patel on Saturday saying that around 400 Ukrainians wanting to reach the UK had so far arrived in Calais, and at least 150 had been turned back and told to obtain visas at British embassies in Paris or Brussels.

In a press conference the following day, he said he had contacted the home secretary twice before writing the letter, urging her to set up a consulate in Calais where visas could be issued.

“Imagine four kids, sometimes disabled children, in a car, setting off again after having done Kiev to Calais - told to do Calais to Paris, or Brussels,” Mr Darmanin added. “It’s a bit inhumane.”

He called for the British government to put its generous rhetoric into action and “to open their arms a little and stop the technocratic nit-picking”.

“Otherwise, you will once again push people to take small boats to cross the Channel to England,” the interior minister said.

“I am sure that Ms Patel is a good person and she will solve this problem, but she has to solve it quickly.”

More than 28,500 people crossed the English Channel by small boat in 2021, mostly asylum seekers from countries including Iran, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.

Addressing the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, the home secretary said the UK had set up a “bespoke visa application centre en route to Calais but away from the port” for Ukrainians.

The centre did not appear on Home Office’s website and it was unclear whether it had started operation.

“We have staff in Calais, we have support on the ground, it is wrong to say we are just turning people back, we are not,” Ms Patel added.

“It is important we do not create choke points in Calais but encourage a smooth flow of people.”

The government has rebuffed previous calls to set up a centre to process asylum applications in northern France, saying it could act as a “magnet” for migrants.

Ms Patel and her French counterpart have clashed several times about asylum seekers and small boat crossings over the English Channel.

In November, Mr Darmanin said France would not accept the home secretary’s planned operations to force dinghies back into its waters and accused the UK of “not taking its share” of asylum seekers.

Boris Johnson refuses to say if govt is considering a new route for Ukrainian refugees

The proposal came as the government backed new laws that would see asylum seekers arriving in British waters “without permission” criminalised and jailed for up to four years.

The Home Office has been under pressure to do more to help people fleeing Ukraine after it revealed on Sunday that only “around 50” visas had been issued under the new family scheme.

It has not provided an update on the figure, but The Independent understands that over 10,000 applications have been received since the route opened on Friday.

Speaking to Sky News on Monday morning, Europe minister James Cleverly acknowledged that “only small numbers have come so far” but said “the process has only just started”.

Mr Cleverly also told LBC that the number of Ukrainians being granted visas for the UK will increase “very, very quickly” but the scale of the crisis is “unprecedented”.

“This is the largest refugee flow that we have seen since the Second World War,” he added.

“It will take a little time to get the system up and running, that's now there, I have no doubt that the numbers will start coming through.”

Ms Patel previously said the UK was ”doing everything possible“ to speed up efforts to grant visas to Ukrainian refugees, including through a sponsorship scheme allowing individuals and organisations to bring Ukrainians to the UK.

Sonya Sceats, chief executive at Freedom from Torture, commented: “Despite months of warnings, this cruel government has been caught woefully unprepared for the scale of this humanitarian crisis because they are trapped in an anti-refugee logic that is becoming more unpopular by the day.

“The fact that only 50 visas have been granted to Ukrainian refugees [under the new family route] shows the dangers of insisting on visa-based schemes when the whole point of the Refugee Convention is to allow people to run to safety and claim asylum on arrival.

“This government’s anti-refugee bill drives a coach-and-horses through the Refugee Convention just as Europe is facing the largest displacement of people since the wake of World War Two.”

A government spokesperson said it was doing everything possible to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine, and that “many have already successfully applied” to the family scheme.

“Staff have been surged across Europe to support people in coming to the UK and all visa application centres remain open with thousands of appointments available to carry out essential security checks, and a dedicated helpline has been set up,” a statement added.

“The Ukrainian Family Scheme is already working and unlimited sponsorship route will be opening for Ukrainians without family ties in the UK so community groups, local authorities and others can sponsor and support those in need to come to the UK.”

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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