UK’s policy on Ukraine marks a turning point

Russia now stands as the most sanctioned country in the world, with an economy that is predicted to shrink by 10% this year, inflicting the greatest recession since the early 1990s.

But while Western allies have shown a united front when it comes to sanctions, the humanitarian response has been more divided. The UNHCR estimates that more than 5 million people have fled Ukraine as a result of the war, with a further 7.7 million displaced within the country. In response, western countries have pledged millions in aid support. To date, the UK has promised £220m in aid for Ukraine. However, sending aid to those inside the country does not necessarily assist those who have fled. And while EU countries have opened their borders to Ukrainian nationals, the UK has – as promised by pro-Brexit politicians – taken back ‘control of our borders’.

The result is two vastly different immigration schemes in a once-united bloc. On the one hand, the EU’s Ukrainian Temporary Protection Scheme offers Ukrainians immediate protection and common rights across EU countries (the Denmark scheme is slightly different). There is no application process; individuals who meet the eligibility criteria and provide the necessary documentation are automatically qualified for entry. The scheme is simple and generous. On the other hand, the UK has introduced a series of schemes – known collectively as the ‘Ukraine Schemes’ – which have been marred by complexities and bureaucracy. Individuals applying under the schemes must navigate technical and logistical hurdles – from strict eligibility criteria through to stringent security checks. Critics have labelled the schemes ‘complex and unfair’. The Home Office has insisted that ‘security checks are vital’.

The three flagship schemes introduced by the Home Office are the Ukraine Family Scheme, the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme and the Ukraine Extension Scheme. The former allows family members of British nationals, UK settled persons and certain other people to come to the UK for up to three years. The application is free and individuals who are granted permission under the scheme can work and study and have access to public funds. On the face of it, the scheme sounds generous and compassionate. As home secretary Priti Patel tweeted, ‘we continue to help Ukrainian families reunite with their loved ones here in the UK, safe from harm’. But the scheme has been fraught with issues: from a visa centre in Calais which was not operational, to a lack of Ukrainian and Russian language guidance, to a swathe of family members who were ineligible for the scheme.

The Home Office addressed these, and many other issues, as part of a simplification of the scheme. Of particular note is the amendment in relation to biometrics: individuals with an international Ukrainian passport are no longer required to book and attend an appointment at a visa application centre (VAC) outside the UK to provide their biometrics before travelling to the UK. This is a welcome change that simplifies the application process for many individuals and, to some extent, addresses the issues with long queues and backlogs of appointments at VACs. But an applicant with a domestic Ukrainian passport or national ID card is still faced with a logistical nightmare. They must book an appointment at a VAC in Europe (there are currently no centres open in Ukraine), travel to that country to attend the appointment, and wait for an outcome for their decision. All of this in the midst of a war.

The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme was launched as an alternative to the Ukraine Family Scheme for individuals with no families ties to the UK. It allows UK-based sponsors to house Ukrainian nationals and their family members for a minimum period of six months. As with the Ukraine Family Scheme, the application is free and individuals can work, study and access public benefits. Sponsors are also given a monthly £350 ‘thank you’ payment. The response from the UK population is a testament to their humanity: the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme website crashed as more than 100,000 people applied to become a sponsor within the first 24 hours. And yet, more than a month since its launch, fewer than 35,000 people have arrived in the UK under the scheme. This, combined with the figure for the Ukraine Family Scheme, puts the total arrivals of visa-holders under the Ukraine Schemes at 54,000; roughly half of the number of visas granted. The discrepancy in the number of visas issued and the number of visas granted is, according to a Home Office whistleblower, attributed to the fact that the system is ‘designed to fail’ and said staff are woefully undertrained.

This comes among reports of family members’ visas being processed at different speeds, with the result that many of those granted a visa are unable to travel to the UK until their family members are granted visas too. In response, Patel said ‘much of that is down to the checks, because [the children] are not always travelling with parents’. In addition, there is the issue of matching sponsors and applicants. Currently, only those who know a named applicant can sponsor them under the scheme. There is no central system for matching those who have expressed an interest in becoming a sponsor with those who are hopeful of coming to the UK. Charities are left to plug the gap.

A third scheme, the Ukraine Extension Scheme, was introduced on 3 May and enables Ukrainian nationals already in the UK with permission by 18 March (or where they held permission which expired on or after 1 January) to continue their stay in the UK. It is currently unclear how many people have taken advantage of this scheme but with a total number of Ukrainians in the UK before the war estimated at under 20,000 it is safe to assume that while welcome, it would not help a huge number of people.

The difference in the approach adopted by the EU and the UK is perhaps best reflected in the numbers. Neighbouring European countries, such as Poland (3.5 million), Romania (943,015), and Hungary (633,219) have welcomed the largest number of refugees. It seems that even amid the worst European conflict since the second world war, Brexit means Brexit.

Laura Devine is managing partner of Laura Devine Immigration

This article courtesy of The Law Gazette

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