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Is the government really ‘way out in front’ with its willingness to help Ukrainian refugees?

Boris Johnson declared the UK is leading the way in its willingness to help refugees. Imagining then what Downing Street views as unwilling is incomprehensible

Photo: The New European

“The UK is way out in front in our willingness to help.” This is what a windswept Boris Johnson told Sky News over three weeks ago. Was the government going to take Ukrainian refugees? Of course they would, they just didn’t say how many.

Currently, there are two visa schemes set up, the Ukraine Family Scheme and the Local Sponsorship Scheme for Ukraine. 

Applying to the family scheme has been equal to a distressing and confusing bureaucratic headache at a time when refugees needed stability and clear information. First, refugees must create an online account on the Home Office website and fill in a detailed application form. Once this is completed, they will then need to upload proof that their qualifying family member has permanent residence status in Britain, such as a copy of the Home Office vignette in their family member’s passport. They then needed to provide proof that they had been living in Ukraine since January 1 this year. 

Next, applicants must provide evidence they are related to the qualifying family member in Britain, such as birth certificates or marriage certificates. If this cannot be provided, they must supply details as to why not. The aforementioned documents must then all be translated into English and uploaded to the website. 

After this, they have to book an in-person appointment at a Home Office visa application centre in Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova or France so officials can register their biometrics, including fingerprints and a facial scan. 

Online, the home office claims it has “well over 3,000 appointments” available per week. The reality has appeared to be something quite different. British nationals with Ukrainian relatives have described chaotic scenes of families arriving at, understaffed, or unstaffed, centres. To make matters worse they were sent around in circles. 

A make-shift sign in Calais told applicants to fill in the form via the provided link and then to travel hundreds of miles in the opposite direction to centres in Paris or Brussels. Liz Truss then announced a pop-up centre was being set up in Lille, 70 miles away from Calais. This centre is now open, in Arras which is about 30 miles from Lille, but will not offer walk-in appointments.

Finally, while normal visa requirements for a tuberculosis vaccination have been waived, some refugees have said they have been mistakenly asked to provide them. 

And then they wait. Latest numbers showed 5 per cent of applicants being approved so far.

Now, Priti Patel has come under fire for allowing a visa firm to turn a pretty profit from refugees. openDemocracy revealed that TLSContact, which has a contract worth £100 million to run visa centres across Europe, has a sole focus of squeezing applicants of their cash and has a history of doing so. Last year, the home secretary ignored warnings of this. 

When facing questions from the Home Affairs Committee, Patel denied claims that refugees were being turned away by the company and that they were charging them for unnecessary extras. “This is a free service. There are no charges in place whatsoever.” Helen Howard-Betts told openDemocracy that that was, quite frankly, incorrect. 

Howard-Betts is currently trying to secure an appointment at a visa centre in Bucharest for her Ukrainian friend, who is currently near Lviv. She had screenshots showing how TLSContact were offering a variety of services to applicants, including €80 to secure an appointment outside of business hours and €38 to help scan and upload documents.

The Home Office also appeared to have profit on their mind. They offered services including €712.80 to expedite an application. It also cost extra if all family members would like to be seen at the same time. 

After this, Howard-Betts struggled to get an appointment through the website at all. But, when she tried to contact the Home Office for assistance on the matter, she was told she would be charged £2.74 for the privilege of emailing the support team.  

And still, another scheme pledges help. According to the government website, the local sponsorship will permit charities, businesses and community groups to sponsor Ukrainians who do not have already established family ties to the UK. The public will be able to house refugees who will then be able to work, access state benefits and public services and have an initial 12-month granted leave. 

Under the Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme, households in the UK will be offered £350 a month to open their homes to individuals fleeing war in Ukraine. Homes will be vetted and Ukrainian applicants will then undergo security checks. The government has confirmed that there will be no limit to the number who can live with host families, with health secretary Sajid Javid explaining there would be “no caps” on the number of people supported through this scheme. Local authorities will also receive £10,500 in extra funding per refugee for support services, with more for children of school age.

Javid added: “I’m pleased that we’re doing this because as a country we have a very proud record of offering sanctuary to people from wars and from conflicts,” a comment that doesn’t quite add up to the figures. As of 13 March, a UN statement said that 2.8 million have fled Ukraine, of which Poland has taken in 1,720,227 refugees to the UK’s 1000 visas that have been issued. 

Is the health secretary willing to home a refugee himself? He admitted he and his wife were “starting to have a conversation” about it. After all, now is the time for a long drawn out discussion as the situation certainly isn’t pressing. Meanwhile, the on-screen Doctor Strange, Benedict Cumberbatch, has said he certainly would. 

Accusing the government of dragging their feet over the crisis, Labour have said that there are still unanswered questions. One being, what exactly constitutes willingness to Downing Street? 

If this hard-heartedness, ineptitude and dishonesty translates as eagerness to Number 10 then you’d hardly dare to imagine what unwillingness looks like. 

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