The British government on Monday resisted pressure to expand its admissions scheme for Ukrainian refugees after criticizing the slowness and bureaucracy of the existing route.
The UK currently operates a “family reunion” route for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, which only allows admission to those with family members residing in the UK.
The government has said it will open a second pathway, which will allow individuals, businesses or charities to sponsor Ukrainian refugees, but has not yet explained how this program will work.
There was an outcry following reports on Sunday that the family reunification program had only granted “about 50” visas, out of more than 10,000 applications.
Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, told the House of Commons on Monday the figure was incorrect. The Home Office on Monday evening tweeted that it had so far issued 300 visas and confirmed 340 others. A total of 8,900 applications had been submitted, he said.
Unlike the UK, all EU countries have dropped their usual requirements for Ukrainians to apply for a visa before traveling and offer them a three-year leave to stay.
Yvette Cooper, Britain’s Home Secretary, called the situation “a total disgrace”. “Desperate Ukrainian families are turned away and let down in their time of need,” she said. wrote on Twitter. “The home office needs to master this quickly.”
She also criticized the government over the plight of Ukrainians arriving in Calais en route to the UK, pointing out that a Ukrainian family stranded at the French port were told that the first available appointment to apply for a visa was in Paris on March 15.
“I have to ask the Home Secretary, ‘What’s going on?'” Cooper said.
Patel told deputies his department planned to set up a visa processing center nearby. The Interior Ministry then insisted that there were 400 free appointments in Paris this week, including 100 reserved for Ukrainians.
Steve Valdez-Symonds, director of refugee and migrant rights at human rights group Amnesty International UK, called the Home Office’s approach ‘too slow and too bureaucratic’ .
“Instead of persisting with its insistence on visas or sponsorship programs for traumatized Ukrainians fleeing an active war zone, the UK should put in place fast-track arrangements for refugees,” he said. .
Former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt on Monday added his voice to those calling on the government to make it easier for Ukrainians trying to escape the fighting to come to the UK.
In one Tweeter which included a copy of a letter to Boris Johnson signed by 37 moderate Tory MPs, he said: ‘We need to do more to support Ukrainian refugees. . . 1.7 million people have now fled and no one can argue they don’t have good reason.
The government has said it is reviewing its position.
“The routes we have put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners,” a spokesperson said. “This is a complex and rapidly changing picture and as the situation evolves we will continue to constantly monitor our support.”
However, Gurpreet Johal, a Glasgow-based immigration lawyer working on applications to help Ukrainians join relatives in the UK, said it was unclear how the system for admitting family members of Ukrainians was supposed to work.
“There is no clarity [about the rules]”, Johal said. “It’s never clear. There’s a lot of red tape.”
He said it was impractical for people fleeing a war zone to require applicants to upload official documents to Home Office websites, with official English translations.
John Vassiliou, a lawyer working for the voluntary Ukraine Advice Project of immigration lawyers, also criticized the bureaucracy associated with the UK’s insistence on Ukrainian refugees getting visas.
‘The problem is that applicants have to fill out forms online, biometrics have to be registered and a decision has to be awaited and received before travelling,’ he said. “The EU does not ask for any of this in advance.”
Patel insisted it is vital the UK maintains its visa regime to ensure refugees coming to the UK are subject to proper security checks.