Despite the UK Government’s decision to extend support to greater numbers of Ukrainians fleeing in the wake of Russia’s invasion, the response to the unfolding crisis is “inadequate” and lags behind the commitments of other leading European nations, according to Mariam Khaliq, Partner and Head of our Immigration team.
On Tuesday (1 March) the Government announced that the family reunion plan would be expanded for Ukrainians seeking to join family members in Britain. The Government estimates that enhancing the scheme will widen eligibility to around 200,000 Ukrainian nationals.
Mariam said: “While the Government’s announcement sounds like it will benefit significant numbers of desperate Ukrainians fleeing Putin’s horrendous war, the reality is that very few Ukrainians will actually be able to apply for asylum in the UK.
“The Home Office’s approach to the refugee crisis unfolding on Europe’s borders has so far been inadequate, and lags behind the far more accommodating approach taken by many European nations, which have opened their borders to unlimited numbers of refugees.”
From 5 March, this scheme expanded the ability of British nationals and people settled in the UK to bring family members into the country, extending eligibility to adult parents, grandparents, children over 18, and siblings. Under this scheme, which will be free, those joining family in the UK will be granted leave for an initial period of 12 months, during which they will be able to work and access public funds.
Prior to this announcement, the Home Office’s position was that Ukrainian family members of British citizens could be eligible for a visa only if they were “immediate family members” – i.e. partners, children under 18 and adult parents whom the British citizen was the carer of.
The government has also announced plans for a new sponsorship scheme for Ukrainians without any family ties to the UK. The scheme will allow sponsors, such as communities, private sponsors or local authorities, to bring those forced to flee Ukraine to the UK. However as yet, there is little published information on how this scheme will work and how applicants can apply. The Government says it will work closely with international partners and neighbouring countries on the scheme to ensure that displaced Ukrainians are supported to apply. It is thought that those eligible under this scheme will also be granted leave for an initial period of 12 months and able to work and access public services.
The changes follow criticism that the UK is doing less than EU countries. About seven million people are thought to have been displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the UN reports that more than 500,000 people have fled the country. EU members have agreed to let in Ukrainian refugees for up to three years without first having to seek asylum, with more than 280,000 people having entered Poland so far.
Mariam continued: “The response of EU member states to the crisis has clearly been far more robust and generous than that of the UK Government, whose aim still seems to be not to invite those fleeing Ukraine to claim asylum in the UK; instead focusing on short term visa programmes whereby a formal application still needs to be made and biometrics submitted as one would do in a normal application under the immigration rules.
“The scheme was expanded due to political and media pressure, but it still only provides the potential for increased numbers of people to join their family members already living here. It does not currently provide any support for refugees fleeing the war who do not have family in the UK and, to date, there has been no talk of a resettlement scheme similar to the, albeit limited, support offered to Afghan nationals during the recent fall of Kabul.
“Furthermore, in practical terms it will be extremely difficult for Ukrainians to actually apply for asylum or visas to travel to the UK, given that the vast majority of visa centres in Ukraine will have closed due to the conflict, and they obviously cannot fly out of the country.
“The Government urgently needs to publish further information on how the expanded family reunion scheme will work in practice and explain how it intends to facilitate applications from family members in Ukraine, or those who have already fled west to Eastern European nations. Currently there is very little detail on how Ukrainians will be able to access the scheme; meanwhile, the humanitarian catastrophe continues to worsen by the day. As of 2 March, the Home Office call centre was advising they haven’t yet been given the details of the scheme.
“This Home Office’s clear priority remains to control immigration numbers and there is a stark disconnect between the rhetoric we’ve heard in support of Ukrainians and actual immigration policy in practice, which is still being designed to limit the number of successful applicants.
“For example, the Government’s Nationality and Borders Bill (currently progressing through the House of Lords), aims to criminalise refugees who arrive in the UK through an irregular route. This clearly sits at odds with public pronouncements of support for Ukrainian nationals, as it would be almost impossible for Ukrainians to arrive in the UK by one of the Home Office’s ‘approved’ routes to claim asylum. However, it is unlikely that when drafting the Nationality and Borders Bill, the Home Secretary imagined that a group of Europeans would soon have grounds to claim asylum.
“The Government does not want to give out the message that the UK is willing to open its borders to any refugees fleeing the war, and is clearly keen to keep tight restrictions on the number of potential Ukrainians it is willing to accept. They have so far been careful not to link the word ‘refugee’ with the Ukrainians currently fleeing their country, as this is not a route they wish to encourage – particularly as the likely way to come to the UK and claim asylum would be via illegal/clandestine entry, due to the fact that most Ukrainians simply cannot get on a plane or apply for a UK visit visa.
“If the Government was to suddenly change its position on waiving immigration requirements and accepting refugees from Ukraine, this could amount to discrimination allegations in that they are not seeking to deal with refugees from other countries in such a favourable light (eg the most notable example would be the stark difference in language, rhetoric and policy towards Syrian or North African refugees).
“Looking ahead, it is likely that further public or political pressure could lead to another, limited expansion of the family reunion scheme (such as to include cousins or more distant relatives) which would give the Government the opportunity to claim it is offering additional support, but there is little political appetite in the Home Office to invite asylum seekers in unlimited numbers.
“If the situation in Ukraine does not improve in the next 12 months, it is very likely that those who have been able to secure 12-month visas under the Home Office’s programmes will claim asylum once in the UK or towards the end of their 12-month visa. The Home Office cannot stop people from doing this once they have arrived in the UK.”
If you are in need of advice or assistance on any of the issues mentioned in this article please contact Mariam or another member of our expert Immigration Team on 020 7631 4141 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The above is correct as at 09 March 2022. The information above may be subject to change as this is a constantly evolving situation.
The content of this note should not be considered legal advice and each matter should be considered on a case by case basis.