As hundreds of thousands of terrified people fled the Russian invasion of Ukraine by crossing into neighbouring countries, Boris Johnson’s government came under increasing pressure to waive visa requirements for Ukrainians to allow them to seek refuge in the UK.
The United Nations has warned that up to 4 million people could flee Ukraine and already around 360,000 have crossed the border into Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Hungary, some in cars, some on foot, many holding their children by the hands and pulling what they’ve salvaged from their upended lives in small suitcases along crowded roads.
But as authorities in those countries welcomed the refugees with food, shelter, cuddly toys for terrified children and offers from locals to ferry them onwards, anger was growing over the fact that anyone wanting to join family or seek refuge in the UK would have to apply for a visa.
Over the past few days, charities and opposition politicians have repeatedly urged the government to waive visa requirements. The Liberal Democrats have called for a comprehensive and fully funded refugee scheme while Mark Drakeford, the Labour first minister of Wales, said he wanted his country to be a “nation of sanctuary”. Charities called for a plan on the scale of the evacuation and resettlement programme initiated during the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s.
Labour MP and shadow foreign secretary David Lammy tweeted on Saturday night: “It is totally immoral that the Home Office is still applying normal visa restrictions to those fleeing Ukraine. The Government must urgently provide a simple sanctuary route to the UK for all who need it. This is our moral duty.”
In a tweeted reply, Home Secretary Priti Patel accused Lammy of “appalling misinformation at a time of international crisis”, saying his tweet was simply untrue.
But on Sunday, the Home Office was still telling Ukrainians that they could access UK Visa Application Centres in neighbouring countries. It said the visa centre in Lviv, in the west of the country, was still open but the priority there was to deal with family members of UK nationals in Ukraine.
“More staff have been surged to VACs in the region,” a Home Office post on social media said – a jargony statement that might do little to convince people fleeing missiles and tanks that Britain is ready to welcome them with open arms.
Nor might they be cheered by the now deleted tweet from Tory MP and under-secretary of state for safe and legal migration Kevin Foster saying that Ukrainian refugees could apply for a seasonal fruit-pickers visa, as one way to get into the UK.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Liz Truss sought to strike a less callous tone, saying the UK “will do all we can” to support the Ukrainians and was “looking urgently” at what more they could do.
“We are already putting in a lot of humanitarian assistance at the border. Of course, the main thing we can do is support the Ukrainians to fight for their country so that they can have a long term future in Ukraine,” she said on Sky News.
“The prime minister was very clear last night that we will be welcoming refugees from Ukraine. We are already expediting our visa processes, our passport processes. We’ve got a 24/7 operation running at the Foreign Office helping people with emergency travel documents. But I can tell you we are looking at what more we can do and we’ll be saying more about this very shortly,” she added.
“Very shortly” probably means something very different in Ukraine these days than it does in the corridors of Whitehall. Perhaps Truss could look across the Irish Sea where the government announced the immediate lifting of visa requirements between Ukraine and Ireland on Friday.
In what it describes as “temporary concessions”, the Home Office has, at least, said Ukrainians who are in the UK and whose visas have expired will be able to extend their stay “without having to leave and re-apply from overseas.”
One might have hoped it would go without saying that people would not be forced into a country at war, but apparently it needed to be stated.
It’s not just opposition politicians who want the government to do more. Conservative MP Julian Smith tweeted: “It’s really important that the United Kingdom makes an immediate open, welcoming & warm hearted commitment of sanctuary to those who wish to leave Ukraine. Rip up the usual bureaucracy & let’s just say they are welcome & we will make it as easy as possible to be here.”
This week, Downing Street was lit up in the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag while the Foreign Office and UK missions abroad raised the country’s flag in solidarity, leading many on social media to urge the prime minister to waive the visas not a flag.
Some commentators drew unflattering comparisons with the “golden visa” scheme that, until it was finally axed earlier this month, allowed wealthy foreign investors, including Russian millionaires, to jump the immigration queue if they promised to invest in British companies.
Asked about lifting visa restrictions on Saturday night, Boris Johnson said he was aware of “fake news” about the UK position and wanted to knock it on the head.
“If you think what we did in Afghanistan, for instance, the UK was way out in front,” he said, perhaps unaware that many Afghans evacuated from Kabul last August are still living in hotels because the government and local authorities are struggling to move people into permanent accommodation due to a lack of sufficient infrastructure.
“The UK is way out in front in our willingness to help with refugees,” Johnson reiterated. “We’ve sent 1,000 troops to the theatre to be ready to help with the influx and of course, we will help people fleeing in fear of their lives.”
Some of the many people who have crossed the English Channel to seek asylum in the UK might beg to differ, and perhaps even take umbrage at the use of the dehumanising word “influx”. They might also point to the proposed Nationality and Borders Bill that will make it a criminal offence to arrive in the UK illegally – like the 132 people who arrived on four small boats after crossing the English Channel on Saturday. Perhaps it’s not so easy to pivot from a “hostile environment” after all.
On Saturday night, Wilson Solicitors, a law firm with expertise in immigration, tweeted that the Home Office was refusing entry to Ukrainians at Paris’ Gare du Nord because they didn’t have visas to join family in the UK.
“@ukhomeoffice nneeds to allow Ukrainians who reach Paris, Lille or Calais, and who have family in the U.K., to be granted leave to enter on humanitarian grounds without requiring a visa application. That requires additional UKVI staff to conduct interviews and make quick decisions,” the law firm tweeted.
In response, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon wrote: “We can do much better than this. Please lift visa requirements immediately @ukhomeoffice so that we can reunite families and offer refuge to as many Ukrainians as possible. @scotgov stands ready to help and play our full part in resettlement effort.”
For the people fleeing Ukraine and hoping to find refuge with some of the 18,000 Ukrainians living in the UK, Liz Truss “shortly” can’t come soon enough.