Leading refugee charities have called on the UK government to scrap visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees, amid mounting anger about the government’s slow progress in issuing paperwork to people fleeing a war zone.
Applicants to host Ukrainian refugees under the Homes for Ukraine scheme have expressed concern that some refugees are being forced to remain in the conflict zone while UK visas are processed.
A Conservative councillor resigned from the party at the weekend after being shocked at the red tape surrounding the UK’s Ukraine visa system, which she said reflected the government’s “hostile” and “xenophobic” approach to refugees.
Samantha Flower has applied to sponsor a 17-year-old Ukrainian boy to live with her family in Buxton, Derbyshire, but said she had been met by delays and bureaucracy. The child has been forced to remain in Ukraine while the paperwork is processed.
“If he doesn’t make it out alive, it’s because the red tape prevented it,” she said.
Her unease was reflected by the statement from the heads of the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Save the Children and Oxfam who warned that the visa system was “causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians”.
“Those who want to come to the UK are having to navigate a complex web of bureaucratic paperwork to get visas, leaving them facing protracted delays without any information about the status of their application,” the charity heads wrote in a letter published on Monday in the Times.
“The government must urgently review the use of visas and waive them as an immediate short-term measure, as has been done by the EU, and look to introduce a simplified emergency humanitarian visa process.”
Flower, a councillor on High Peak borough council, has signed up to the UK’s Home for Ukraine scheme, where strangers act as hosts, but has not yet been approved. Only 1,000 of the 25,000 completed applications have been approved so far.
The boy and his stepmother and father, both lawyers, fled their home in Kyiv when Russia invaded. They arranged for the teenager to travel to the UK after contacting Flower online, where the councillor had offered her home. However, the boy has only a domestic Ukrainian passport and not the international passport required by the UK as part of its visa process. The boy’s family have had to stay in Ukraine and wait for the correct paperwork – a process they have been told could take weeks.
“They’re having to wait for the passport to be completed,” said Flower. “They had a shell land near their home five or six days ago. They don’t know from one day to the other what’s going to happen.”
She said the government’s complex visa system for Ukrainians reflected its “hostile” approach to all refugees, adding: “We’re tipping towards being quite far right and it’s not the party that I joined.”
More than 3.9 million refugees have left Ukraine in the past month, according to the United Nations high commissioner for refugees, more than 2.2 million of whom have ended up in Poland. The Home Office has granted 21,600 visas to Ukrainians who are hoping to join relatives in Britain under the Ukraine Family scheme.
The Department for Levelling Up, which is handling the parallel Homes for Ukraine scheme, for people who do not have family in the UK, has not yet released any figures about the number of visas granted. However, refugee hosting charities say the numbers of people coming through this scheme are so far “tiny”.
Lauren Scott, director of hosting charity Refugees at Home, said: “We have been told anecdotally that the delay is largely down to the onerous visa application process, which is frustrating for our hosts and must be soul-destroying for guests. It is creating a huge bottleneck. So far we only know of three sponsorship visas granted to potential guests, and that’s all to one family.”
An opinion poll released on Sunday by Savanta ComRes indicated that 54% of people in the UK support a no-visa policy, and would like to allow an unlimited number of Ukrainians who are fleeing the Russian invasion to come to the UK.
Despite concerns over the slowness of the process for granting visas to Ukrainian refugees, organisations working to resettle Afghan refugees who were airlifted from Kabul last August have asked the Homes for Ukraine scheme to be extended to allow households also to host Afghan families.
In a letter to Michael Gove, secretary of state for levelling up, 50 signatories – including the head of the Refugee Council and former Conservative ministers Robert Buckland, Damian Green, Johnny Mercer and Caroline Nokes – called on the government to permit some of the 12,000 Afghans who are still being accommodated in hotels to be hosted in residential homes.