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4 March 2022

Public is against Priti Patel’s Ukrainian refugee restrictions

The bungled Home Office response is causing disquiet among Conservative MPs and runs counter to the wishes of British voters.

By Anoosh Chakelian

If you’re a Ukrainian in Ukraine right now, and you want to come to the UK, you have limited options.

You can’t apply for a visa because the Kyiv application centre is closed. The only exception is if you are the immediate family member of a British national living in Ukraine, in which case you can apply for a free family visa from the centre in Lviv, near the Polish border. Family members who do not satisfy the usual family visa eligibility criteria (like level of English and a minimum income requirement) may be given permission to enter the UK for 12 months.

For the majority who aren’t in this category, you have to apply for a UK visa at an application centre in a neighbouring country, which means crossing the Ukraine border safely to Poland, Moldova, Romania or Hungary.

[See also: Ukrainian refugees face spin and confusion from Priti Patel’s Home Office]

And if you make it that far, there are yet more barriers. You have to be an immediate or extended family member of a British citizen or someone settled in the UK to apply for a UK visa, but the details of eligibility and an implementation date have yet to be confirmed.

If you don’t have family links in the UK then there will be a new sponsorship scheme which will rely on local communities, charities and businesses sponsoring you to come over. The details of this, however, are still unclear. We still don’t know how people will apply either as a sponsor or a refugee, with the details to be “communicated in due course”.

Yet this is the most generous version of a refugee response dragged out of the government in the days since Russia’s invasion.

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While Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, insists visa rules stay place for the sake of security and biometric checks, these checks can be done once a person reaches the UK, according to the head of the British Red Cross. In contrast, the EU swiftly figured out a way of allowing Ukrainians in for three years without having to apply for asylum.

Almost two thirds (64 per cent) of the British public would support Ukrainian refugees being granted visas to enter the UK without restriction, according to exclusive polling for the New Statesman by Redfield & Wilton Strategies carried out on 2 March. A majority of Tory voters, 58 per cent, feel the same. This undermines the argument that Conservative MPs are trying to play to their base — for example, Edward Leigh declaring in the Commons that “we really feel we have done our bit in terms of migration from eastern Europe”.

[See also: Borders bill would treat Ukrainian refugees “as criminals”, ministers are warned]

In its quest to keep immigration controls largely in place, the Home Office response has been peppered with gaffes from ministers: Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, suggested Ukrainians could come to the UK to pick fruit, and Patel erroneously claimed in the Commons that an elderly Ukrainian woman stuck at Gare du Nord would be able to join her adult daughter in the UK when the rules said otherwise (the rules have since changed, and the woman has been allowed in).

One Tory MP and former Home Office minister tells me the department should be thinking more creatively in a crisis like this, admitting that it’s “not the most likely department to think outside the box”. They added that it takes imaginative ministers to make the Home Office work better.

Perhaps this is why the new refugee sponsorship scheme has been taken out of Priti Patel’s hands and made the responsibility of the reforming minister Michael Gove’s Levelling Up department. A similar scheme during the Syrian refugee response appears to have been helmed by the Home Office with a smaller role for the local government department.

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