On Saturday 26 February, two days after Russia began its invasion of Ukraine, the UK Home Office minister Kevin Foster tweeted an early indication of the British government’s response to Ukrainian refugees: “There are a number of routes, not least our seasonal worker scheme… which Ukrainians can qualify for, alongside the family route for those with relatives here.”
The seasonal worker scheme is for those coming to the UK for six months to pick fruit and veg. The eligibility criteria include a £244 application fee, job offer in that industry, a certificate of sponsorship, proof you have at least £1,270 of funds available and the ability to wait three weeks for a visa decision.
Foster hastily deleted his tweet after a wave of outrage at his suggestion that Ukrainian refugees could only seek sanctuary in the UK if they were willing to work as fruit pickers if they didn’t have certain relatives to join there. But he was at least being honest. It was the only route available if you didn’t qualify for the family migration route.
All the Home Office had done at that point was to temporarily waive application fees for those eligible for entry under the family migration route, allow entry for 12 months to those who did not meet the requirements (ie family members of British citizens who don’t tick all the boxes but pass security checks), and fast-track these visas via a 24/7 helpline. The family migration visa route only allows Ukrainians to join their spouse or civil partner, unmarried partner with whom they’ve cohabited for at least two years, under-18 child, or adult relative they provide care for and live with due to a medical condition. Ukrainian children under the age of 18 are also allowed to join their parent. All these family members must be British citizens.
These changes had been made more than two weeks before Foster’s comments.
Since then the Home Office has been caught up in confusion about what routes it is and is not offering to Ukrainian refugees.
When I heard from the department at 2.20pm on Saturday 26 February, the same day Foster tweeted his narrow criteria, the only provisions outlined were that Ukrainians in the UK on whatever visa would be allowed to extend their stay, or switch to a different visa route that would allow them to stay in the country longer. At the time, a government spokesperson told me the government’s “priority remains supporting British nationals who are resident in Ukraine and their dependants who want to leave the country”.
All UK visa services in Kyiv remain closed. The centre in Lviv is still open, but only for family members of British nationals. Staff have been beefed up in visa centres in nearby countries, including Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. Ukrainians have to reach these countries to apply for UK visas.
At the time of writing the government’s line was still that “Ukrainian nationals in Ukraine (who aren’t immediate family members of British nationals normally living in Ukraine, or where the British national is living in the UK) are currently unable to make visa applications to visit, work, study or join family in the UK through a VAC [visa application centre] in Ukraine”.
This hasn’t stopped the spin machine, however. On Monday 28 February Priti Patel described what had been implemented so far as a “bespoke humanitarian route”, referring to the family migration route concessions that were already in place over a fortnight ago — the only new announcement being that Ukrainians could join relatives settled in the UK rather than just those classed as British nationals. She claimed this would allow up to 100,000 people to come to the UK.
Yet she refused to waive visas for Ukrainian refugees because of the need for “security and biometric checks” as a “fundamental part of our visa approval process worldwide”.
This “new” plan was still restricted to a very limited pool of family members, leaving out siblings, adult children and grandparents, for example. And the re-announcement of existing policies added to what Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, described as a “weekend of complete confusion” over who was eligible for visas.
Under further pressure from an unimpressed House of Commons, Patel will have to return to the House on Tuesday 1 March to announce further concessions under the family migration route — allowing Ukrainians to join grandparents, children over 18 and siblings of people settled in the UK, which Boris Johnson has said could increase the number eligible to 200,000.
The Prime Minister has also mentioned “a humanitarian scheme and then a scheme by which UK companies and citizens can sponsor individual Ukrainians to come to the UK”.
The latest announcements are still fiddling with an existing system rather than designing a bespoke resettlement scheme, and are a far cry from the EU’s proposals.
This is all while more than 500,000 people have fled Ukraine, and EU members agree to let Ukrainian refugees in for up to three years without having to apply for asylum.
Incremental changes forced under pressure, deleted offensive tweets, recycled and confused announcements and a sluggish response expose the true nature of Britain’s response to refugees, however.
After all, on the same day Patel was insisting on the government’s non-existent “bespoke humanitarian route”, the House of Lords was voting on legislation put forward by her government that would discriminate against refugees arriving in Britain via an “unlawful” route (the main way Ukrainians without family members in the UK would make it there).
Peers voted to remove clause 11 from the Nationality and Borders Bill, which would make it harder for Ukrainians and other refugees seeking safety in the UK without a visa. The bill is also expected to suffer further defeats in when it returns to the House of Lords on 2 March, and peers are putting forward an amendment that would give the government a resettlement target of 10,000 refugees a year.
The legislation will return within weeks to renewed opposition in the Commons, where MPs’ minds have been focused on the plight of refugees by the Russian invasion. Although the government has held firm against calls to water down the bill, particularly on clause 11, there is growing concern in the Conservative party about the UK not doing enough to help Ukrainian refugees – the One Nation group of Tory MPs published a letter yesterday saying as much.
“Clause 11 would affect all refugees – whether they are fleeing war in Ukraine or persecution from the Taliban in Afghanistan,” says Seb Klier, parliamentary manager at the Refugee Council, which is also calling for peers to remove other elements of the bill later this week, including a provision to criminalise those seeking asylum.
“A new war in Europe is a close reminder that anyone can become a refugee, and the UK should continue to uphold its respect for the Refugee Convention and the norms of international protection. We hope MPs recognise this when the bill returns to the House of Commons.”
Yet whatever the outcome of this legislation, it is a symbol of how Britain’s role in the world has changed. Once a nation that prided itself on providing sanctuary to refugees, Britain now lags behind its European partners. It is having to be dragged, kicking its heels and spinning, to a more welcoming stance.