9 March 2022

Britannia, waive the rules: the UK must stop dragging its feet over Ukrainian refugees

By Aliona Hlivco

Vladimir Putin’s invasion of my country is both a disaster for Ukraine and a humanitarian crisis the likes of which Europe has not seen since World War II.

According to the UN, some 2 million Ukrainians have fled in the space of two weeks – many of them women and children leaving behind relatives who have stayed to fight the Russian onslaught. Millions more are still trying to get to safety, awaiting their evacuation via humanitarian corridors.

With a defiance that has captured the world’s imagination, President Zelenskyy speaks about a bright, post-war Ukraine in which our ravaged infrastructure and smouldering cities will be rebuilt. For now, however, the reality is that many Ukrainians are in dire need of protection from the Russian war machine.

Unfortunately, the British response has so far not been up to the task. While the EU has waived visa rules and is allowing Ukrainians to live and work in the bloc for up to three years, the message from the Home Office has been confused and often contradictory.

At first a Home Office minister suggested Ukrainians could use the ‘seasonal worker’ route to enter the UK. Then we had the Ukraine Family Scheme, which allows refugees whose relatives are already in the UK to come here, along with promises of a ‘rapid’ processing of visas.

But for Ukrainians waiting in France, it’s not even even been clear where people should apply for their UK visas. Having promised a ‘surge team’ in Calais, the Government then announced that there would not be a Visa Application Centre (VAC) in the city and applicants should instead head 70 miles east to Lille. Reports also abound of understaffed VACs, including one in Poland that left a crowd of applicants standing outside in sub-zero temperatures.

Little wonder that yesterday’s Home Office questions in the House of Commons was an ill-tempered affair, with MPs on all sides passionately urging the Government to introduce refugee visas or an emergency entry route. Given the number of Ukrainians who have made it to the UK so far, their frustration is understandable: as of today, France has hosted around 5,000 refugees. Ireland, a country with a population of just 5 million, has taken over 2,000 refugees. The UK, meanwhile, has only issued 500 visas.

As a Ukrainian who has made their home in the UK, I have mixed feelings about the current situation. The UK has been a steadfast partner to our government in resisting Russian aggression, training our military personnel and providing substantial aid. Likewise, the British public have shown their generosity in donating £100m to the Disasters Emergency Committee to help my compatriots.

Yet now, when the situation is at its most dire, the Government continues to drag its feet, playing a game of bureaucratic pass-the-parcel while desperate people try to find a safe haven. And it’s not even as though they are reacting to public opinion, given that polling shows that a rising proportion of Brits want to take in more Ukrainian refugees. It would be popular, simple and humane to simply allow those with a Ukrainian passport or ID card to enter the country, rather than forcing already desperate people to jump through bureaucratic hoops.

Given the sensitivity of the immigration debate in this country, we should also be clear that an emergency route for Ukrainians is unlikely to result in vast numbers of people coming here. The existing Ukrainian community in the UK is very small – just 35,000 according to ONS figures from 2021 – and my compatriots are most likely to stay in neighbouring countries such as Poland, which already had a huge Ukrainian community before the war broke out. Introducing an EU-style visa waiver is simply about making the process less long-winded and expensive for those who do seek shelter in this country.

And if the simple humanitarian case is not enough, remember that Ukraine is a well-educated nation, with brilliant engineers and world-leading IT specialists – people who would be an asset to any country.

Britain has long had a proud history of taking in those escaping persecution, be it Jewish refugees from Hitler’s Germany, or Ugandan Asians fleeing Idi Amin. The Government should look to that fine tradition and offer a warm welcome to the victims of Putin’s murderous aggression.

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Aliona Hlivco is Strategic Relations Manager at the Henry Jackson Society.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.