‘Still major gaps’ in Ukraine visa scheme despite Home Office U-turn

Experts warn refugees will still have to go through ‘confusing’ online process and may face long delays

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Thursday 10 March 2022 23:29 GMT
Ukrainian refugee in tears amid UK visa difficulties
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Priti Patel’s changes to Britain’s scheme for Ukrainian refugees do not go “anywhere near far enough” to give proper support to those fleeing conflict, the government has been warned.

In a move to simplify the system, the home secretary announced that, from Tuesday, those who have fled the Russian invasion and have passports will no longer need to go to a visa application centre to submit their fingerprints and documents before they come to the UK.

But experts have said there are “still major gaps” in the government’s support for Ukrainian refugees, warning that people would still be required to go through a “chaotic and frustrating” online application process and calling for “urgent clarity” on who will benefit in practice.

Lawyers said many Ukrainians do not currently have passports and are still likely to seek out visa application centres for help with the “confusing” process of filling out applications.

The Independent’s Refugees Welcome campaign is calling for the government to go further and faster to help Ukrainians fleeing the war, with more than 183,000 people signing our petition asking ministers to provide more supplies of food, clothing and shelter for Ukrainian refugees and to do more to make the UK a safe haven for them.

Announcing the change in the House of Commons on Thursday, the home secretary said it would mean visa application centres across Europe could “focus their efforts on helping Ukrainians without passports”.

It is not clear how many Ukrainians do not have passports. In the five years to 2021, 16.6 million Ukrainians were issued an international passport, of a population of 44 million.

The announcement came amid mounting concerns about “unnecessary delays and bureaucracy” in the visa application process for the UK’s family visa scheme, which was opened last Friday. Many refugees have been forced to wait for hours in the cold and travel for miles in order to complete the requirement of submitting their biometric information.

Changes to the UK’s scheme were followed by reports that the British public will be asked to offer homes to tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing war.

According to the Daily Telegraph, ministers will this weekend launch a hotline and webpage allowing individuals, charities, businesses and community groups to offer rooms to refugees who have no family links to the UK.

The Independent has set up a petition calling on the UK government to be at the forefront of the international community offering aid and support to those in Ukraine. To sign the petition click here.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the changes to the scheme would be a “relief for many”, but that they “don’t yet go far enough”.

“There will still be problems at visa centres and many people [are] still excluded from help. The chaotic government response puts us to shame,” she said.

Kerry Garcia, head of immigration at law firm Stevens & Bolton, who is supporting eight Ukrainians with UK visa applications on a pro bono basis, told The Independent that while the change was “helpful”, it did not remove the requirement for people who have fled conflict to go through a “confusing and frustrating” online application system in order to apply.

“People still need to access an online system that doesn’t work very well at the best of time. It is not fit for purpose for this many applications being submitted at the same time. It crashes, you can’t upload documents,” she said.

“There are all sorts of practical difficulties. This is a system designed for normal system of immigration, not for a refugee crisis.”

Ms Garcia, whose Ukrainian clients have all now submitted their online applications but have not yet had their visa appointments because there are often none available for weeks, said ministers must also “clarify urgently” how the change would affect people in practice.

“In particular they must clarify how it affects people who have already applied, how the system will work in terms of processing documents, and also anticipated processing times. It’s one thing to say you can now apply digitally, but the big question is how long do you have to wait in your Airbnb using up in some cases your life savings?” she said.

Amy Stokes, head of business immigration at Forbes Solicitors, said digital visas would do little to avoid the need for Ukrainians to make their applications in person at visa application centres.

“Applying digitally sounds great in theory but will do little to stem the confusion about whether a person meets the visa eligibility criteria,” she said.

It comes after Ukraine’s ambassador to the UK Vadym Prystaiko told MPs on Wednesday that if bureaucratic procedures in the visa scheme were “simplified” it would “definitely resolve all the issues”.

Marley Morris, IPPR associate director for migration, trade and communities, said there were “still major gaps” in the UK’s support for Ukrainian refugees.

“The government should follow the lead of Canada and the EU by offering temporary protection to all Ukrainians who want to apply. At the same time, it should urgently investigate how to further streamline the visa process, or simply lift visa requirements altogether,” he added.

Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory at the University of Oxford, said: “It was clear from government data that securing in-person appointments was one of the obstacles preventing eligible Ukrainians from getting a visa to come to the UK.

“However, it was only one of the factors – and there are still other bottlenecks, including the need to gather all the documents and information required to prove eligibility. The next big question is how quickly the Home Office will be able to ramp-up processing as the applications increase.”

Boris Johnson insisted the visa scheme was as “light touch” as possible but stressed the need for security checks on people fleeing Ukraine.

He told reporters on Thursday: “I think people do understand that when you have got large numbers of people leaving from a war zone – some of them still armed, perhaps not all of their identities completely clear, their motivations completely clear – it is responsible to have checks.”

“More than a thousand” visas had been granted by Wednesday and the numbers were going to “climb very steeply”, Mr Johnson said.

But Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the Refugee Council, said the change to the visa scheme did not go “anywhere near far enough”.

He added: “Rather than continuing with a system that requires Ukrainian refugees to apply for a visa, the government urgently needs to temporarily waive visa requirements so that all Ukrainian families fleeing war and bloodshed can easily reach the UK and access the protection that is their fundamental right under the Refugee Convention.”

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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