Boris Johnson has announced that Ukrainian refugees can come to the UK if they have immediate family here, as the conflict in Ukraine enters its fifth day. Explosions were heard across Ukraine’s cities last night, and President Volodymyr Zelensky has said that the next 24 hours will be crucial for his country.
“Any person settled in the UK will be able to bring their Ukrainian immediate family members to join them here,” No 10 said last night. “This will benefit many thousands of people who at this moment are making desperate choices about their future.” The announcement comes after sustained pressure on the UK government to accept more people fleeing Ukraine, ahead of a refugee crisis that is expected to involve millions of people.
But the small print reveals that these provisions will only apply to married and long-term couples and children under 18 seeking to be reunited with their parents. Applicants will still be subject to English language requirements and a minimum income requirement, with a government caveat that: “Given the current circumstances, if somebody does not meet these requirements, UKVI [Visas and Immigration] will consider an alternative grant of leave to come to the UK.” But there is no guarantee that, after consideration, a visa will be given to those who fall short of one of these requirements, even if they fall into the limited category of eligible family members.
The Labour Party has described the narrowness of these changes to visa requirements as “shameful”, while the Liberal Democrats have said that: “Boris Johnson needs to follow the lead of our European neighbours and set up a simple, rapid scheme to resettle Ukrainian refugees in the UK. Anything less would be a failure of moral leadership and leave thousands at risk.” The EU agreed unanimously last night that all member countries will take in Ukrainian refugees for up to three years without asking them to first apply for asylum.
These developments come as the House of Lords prepares to debate amendments to the Nationality and Borders Bill today. The conflict in Ukraine has illuminated a cause for concern in the bill, with Conservative peers, as well as many cross-bench and other peers, voicing their doubts and planning amendments to a clause that would criminalise many Ukrainian refugees entering the UK via irregular routes. This bill has been controversial for a long time, with fears that it creates an asylum model that undermines internationally established refugee protection practices. Ukraine has lent the policy a new urgency and poignancy. Between the smallness of the visa changes for close family and the legislation moving through parliament, the UK is going to be a cold house for Ukrainians fleeing war, with very few exceptions. The question is whether the concern growing among Conservative peers will spread to the rest of the party and ultimately force the government to either introduce a resettlement scheme for Ukrainians, and/or adapt its wider policy on refugees, now that it is being seen in a new, starker light.