The Home Office response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis has left me aghast. It has been slow, incompetent and downright deceitful. And it utterly undermines the blue and yellow ribbons that Tory MPs proudly pin to their blazers.
We have seen the government bend over backwards to offer warm words of support to refugees, and extol its flagship Homes for Ukraine scheme. Yet simultaneously, it has thrown every possible bureaucratic blockade in their path – sending Brits round in circles looking for a refugee to welcome, and refugees round in circles looking for a visa stamp to get them to safety.
There were signs of things turning a corner: when Priti Patel U-turned to allow visa applications online, and when a new refugees minister, Richard Harrington, was appointed. He then publicly set a target for visas to be issued “48 hours from when they download the application form to when they are given permission to travel”.
But the flaws in the Home Office operation are systematic, deep-rooted and years in the making. Despite the minister’s welcome intentions, this goal could not be further from reality.
Where to start with my own constituency cases?
There are people who submitted visa applications within days of the Homes for Ukraine scheme opening on 18 March, and remain unresolved – some even unacknowledged – by the Home Office. These applications are largely made by young women and mothers travelling with children – some as young as two – or elderly and frail grandparents who are at immense risk.
They’ve been sent to visa application centres in Warsaw, only to be turned away due to other schemes taking priority; or to Rzeszow, only to be turned away due to a lack of printing facilities. Yes, you read that right.
On 19 and 20 March, just one and two days after the Homes for Ukraine scheme opened, a mother and her two-year-old son submitted their visa applications with the help of my constituent, the family’s sponsor. They are travelling alone, and this interim period is proving immensely difficult for them. The two-year-old had his appointment at the pop-up visa application centre in Rzeszow, Poland last week.
After a lengthy wait in Rzeszow, they’ve now been told that they will need to travel to Warsaw – more than 200 miles away – to receive a paper visa before they can travel to the UK, as the Rzeszow visa centre has no printing facilities. This process will take another five days. What is the point of a further pop-up visa application centre in Rzeszow, if everyone is then required to travel to Warsaw straight after?
Over the past few weeks, it’s been possible to raise urgent cases by visiting the Home Office surgery desk in parliament in an attempt to fast-track cases – but this has been closed now because parliament is in recess. So we’ve had to revert to the “MP hotline”, where there has been a two-hour wait for calls to be answered and a limit on the number of cases raised in any one call because there’s not enough capacity within the overstretched team to take them all.
If that 48-hour target was meant to be realistic and achievable, it’s certainly not being realised or achieved.
All this while other immigration casework is still pouring in from Afghanistan, Syria and other parts of the world – and with the Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary now seemingly at loggerheads over the fiasco. If the Home Office can’t even handle the backlog from Ukraine dating back to 18 March, what hope do we have for other outstanding refugee cases?
What is unfolding is not the response of a generous and compassionate government supporting those fleeing a brutal war. It’s the response of an inward-looking government, dragged kicking and screaming to do the compassionate thing, and now placing unnecessary barriers in the way of people fleeing the most desperate situation imaginable. The entire visa process is immoral – the visa requirement should be waived immediately. And the rest of the Home Office response has been nothing but an omnishambles, riddled with inconsistencies and mired in confusion – and it has to change.
A government spokesperson did not respond directly to the case of the two-year-old referred to in this article. They claimed the government is moving “as quickly as possible to ensure that those fleeing Ukraine can find safety in the UK through the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine”, and that it continues to “speed up visa processing across both schemes, with almost 30,000 visas issued in the last three weeks alone and thousands more expected to come through these uncapped routes”.
The New Statesman understands that final visas for Ukrainian refugees who make it to Polish visa centres are currently being printed out at Warsaw for so-called security reasons, though it received no denial from the Home Office of a broken printer at Rzeszow.