Britain’s disappointing visa system for Ukraine

“Please do not attempt to travel to the UK without a valid visa.”

The statement sits at the top of the Ukrainian advice page on the government website. I mean, it doesn’t say don’t come, but it’s not exactly welcoming either.

The refugee crisis continues to intensify. It’s estimated three million citizens have already fled the country and the EU predict the total figure could touch seven. They are scared and desperate, leaving their homes and putting their safety in the hands of strangers. As a conglomerate, the EU has overturned their visa system enacting the as yet unused Temporary Protection Directive to open their doors to refugees in remarkable numbers. Poland has taken 1.4 million, Germany 109,000, Italy have housed 24,000.

And Britain? As of the 15 March, it had approved just 4000 visa applications. In a New York Times piece, BoJo declared the West needs to pull together and widen its efforts; “have we done enough for Ukraine? The honest answer is no.” But if those above statistics are telling of anything, it’s Britain, and Britain alone, that needs to do more.

Unlike EU countries, Britain hasn’t evoked an open-door policy. Initially, the Family Scheme allowed Ukrainians to travel on the condition they had an immediate or extended family member settled in the UK. But definitions remain confusing. It is currently acceptable for an aunt to join a niece but it’s not acceptable for a niece to join an aunt. The combination of online applications and in-person appointments at Visa Application Centres (VAC) is admin-heavy and sluggish. VACs are sparse and overwhelmed. This reliance on official documents is largely responsible for Britain’s embarrassing numbers. The system has consequently been streamlined. From the 15 March, Ukrainian refugees who hold a valid passport will receive automatic approval upon completion of the online application form. Whilst it will hopefully reduce administrative demands, it is still a technocratic approach and hasn’t offered additional support for the interlude.

The Home Office defended these methodical checks in the name of security as unrestricted movement could leave Britain vulnerable to Russian extremist attacks. Priti Patel reassured the nation this reformed system will not put Britain under increased threat. But was it not last week Boris Johnson guaranteed Evgeny Lebedev, a former KGB agent and media mogul, a lifetime seat in the House of Lords, despite British intelligence officials raising concerns about his intentions? No offence Evgeny, I’m sure you’re a lovely chap, but it seems to me Russia is only a threat when it needs to be.

Selectivity is typical of our government’s attitude. Just look at our immigration policy, they don’t like people coming to Britain. I’m not surprised, but I’m disappointed that I’m not surprised. At a time when we should be pulling together to help the innocent and vulnerable, somehow Britain has made the issue all about itself, reinforcing barriers when it should be relaxing them. Moreover, Britain is at the forefront of sending defensive weapons to Ukraine, beginning its provisions in January, a whole month prior to the EU. Is it not telling of the government’s attitude they would rather support the fight than cushion the repercussions?

At the time of writing, the government has just announced its Homes for Ukraine Scheme. It looks promising, allowing individuals, local communities and private companies to apply to sponsor refugees and bring them over to the UK. With no limit on the numbers who are eligible, it could seriously accelerate Britain’s efforts. Time will tell whether it proves a success.

Unfortunately, for the thousands fleeing Ukraine, they don’t have time to wait and see.

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May 2022
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