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13 December 2022

Revealed: Boris Johnson made up Ukrainian refugee number promise

The former prime minister’s pledge to take in 200,000 people fleeing war was not backed by any planning or data.

By Anoosh Chakelian

After Russia invaded Ukraine in late February 2022, the UK soon came under pressure to provide sanctuary for people escaping the country. Its visa processes and refugee promises came under intense scrutiny as it quickly emerged that the Home Office was making it more difficult for refugees to escape to the UK than to other European countries.

During this period, government ministers were scrambling to find ways to sound generous as their system fell short – with one minister memorably explaining that refugees could come in via a fruit-picking visa.

Boris Johnson visited Poland on 1 March and announced that the UK would take in at least 200,000 refugees from one visa route alone: “We are extending the family scheme so that very considerable numbers would be eligible. You could be talking about a couple of hundred thousand, maybe more.”

However, the New Statesman can reveal this number appears to have been stated with no basis. “The Home Office did not carry out analysis underpinning the 200,000 figure,” the department wrote in response to a Freedom of Information request from the New Statesman. “This figure was not cited by the Home Office in relation to the Ukraine Family Scheme.”

In March, Labour called on the government to publish “detailed calculations” behind Johnson’s declaration that 200,000 Ukrainians would be eligible to seek family visas in the UK, and both the SNP and Liberal Democrats asked the government what data was used to come to this number.

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As I reported at the time, Home Office officials were privately accusing ministers of simply “guessing” when promising numbers in response to widespread criticism of their refugee response. When it comes to refugee schemes, politicians have been known to announce “big-sounding round numbers” with no plan in place, according to one Whitehall official who has worked in this policy area.

Now this admission from the department suggests Johnson was indeed reaching for numbers off the top of his head. In fact, the latest data as of 6 December indicates that the Ukraine Family Scheme – which Johnson was referring to – has resulted in 60,300 visas granted so far, just 30 per cent of what the former prime minister suggested.

[See also: The government’s concession on childcare shows how much the issue matters to voters]

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