Frustration and confusion around the UK’s response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis continued on Tuesday as Priti Patel was accused of misleading parliament over arrangements for those trying to reach the UK via Calais.
No 10 announced that hundreds of refugees who have travelled to the French town in the hope of reaching loved ones in Britain would have to make a 70-mile journey to Lille to apply for visas, despite previous suggestions that there would be a visa centre closer to the port.
The Home Office has said that Ukrainian refugees can take free tickets offered by Eurostar to make the journey from Calais to Lille – but there are no journeys available on the Eurostar website between these two locations.
Concern meanwhile mounted around the bureaucratic process refugees are confronted with when trying to apply under the UK’s family migration route, as it emerged some are having to wait weeks to get a visa appointment, while others turned up to visa centres to discover that they were closed.
A lack of available appointment slots at visa centres in EU countries has meant some refugees are not currently able to apply for the new refugee scheme, under which Ms Patel has said tens of thousands of close relatives of British nationals and people settled in the UK will be eligible to come to Britain after it opened on Friday.
MPs said there were no appointments in Paris until 15 March and none in Poland until the “end of the month”. The Independent has been in touch with Ukrainians who have said they have been unable to book an appointment. The Home Office has insisted that there are free appointments.
Ukrainian refugees in Poland, including elderly people and children, were forced to queue for several hours in freezing conditions outside a visa centre in Rzeszow after it stopped accepting walk-in appointments – a situation described by Labour’s Clive Efford described as “complete chaos”.
Andrei Toloshko, 37, who fled from Kyiv with his wife, Eugenia and five-year-old son Ilya, said he had not yet managed to submit an application to join his brother in the UK due to no appointments being available.
The Ukraine resident said he attended the UK visa centre in Chisinau, Moldova – the only centre in the country – on Monday and were turned away because there were too many people. They returned on Tuesday to find that the centre was shut for a public holiday.
“I’m shocked. The Home Office said they would try to make it faster, but it’s no different to normal. They are obviously completely unprepared for this situation,” he told The Independent. He has now managed to book an appointment for Saturday.
The Independent understands that the Home Office has placed 35 additional Home Office staff in visa centres across Europe, which is expected to go up to 50 in the coming days. There are 57 UK visa centres across the continent.
On Monday evening the Home Office revealed that 300 visas had been granted to Ukrainians after the department received thousands of applications.
It emerged on Tuesday that the Home Office was warned in November by the immigration watchdog that the “geographical spread” of its visa centres was causing “particular challenges” for vulnerable applicants and leading to difficult and dangerous journeys - yet no action was taken despite warnings of the imminent invasion in Ukraine.
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Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told the House of Commons that most people trying to apply to come to Britain were being “held up by Home Office bureaucracy or being turned away in their time of need”.
“It is truly dreadful the way that desperate people are being treated. Families are being expected to travel hundreds of miles to visa centres that only open part time, or to wait a week for the next appointment,” she said.
During the same sitting, Ms Patel was accused by a senior Conservative MP of misleading parliament over arrangements for Ukrainian refugees trying to reach the UK via Calais, after she twice claimed that a centre had been set up on the way to the French port – only for it to later emerge that no such centre had been set up.
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Sir Roger Gale told the Commons that “in any normal administration”, her behaviour would have been a resignation matter.
Instead of admitting that she had given inaccurate information, the home secretary wrongly told Ms Cooper that she had already “made quite clear” that the centre had not yet been set up and accused the Labour frontbencher of mishearing her earlier comments.
It came as Downing Street announced that the former Tory minister Richard Harrington had been appointed as the new minister for refugees. Mr Harrington, who stood down as an MP at the 2019 general election, will be made a life peer so he can sit in the Lords.
Meanwhile, The Independent revealed that Ukrainians who worked at the British embassy in Kyiv have been told they will not get refuge in the UK as they seek to flee the war unless they can fulfil strict entry qualifications.
Unlike other European countries, the UK is demanding that Ukrainians seeking sanctuary apply for visas, which are granted only to those with family links in Britain. A second scheme, not yet in operation, will allow entry to individuals sponsored by councils, charities or businesses.
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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