Ukraine: what is the UK government doing to support refugees fleeing the Russian invasion?

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Lauren Geall
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Ukrainian refugees after crossing the Polish border

The UK government has currently confirmed two routes for Ukrainian refugees to travel to the UK and announced plans for Britons to be able to take displaced people into their homes – but some experts have said the response doesn’t go far enough.

As reported on 13 March: Households in the UK will be offered £350 a month for opening up their homes to people fleeing the war in Ukraine, under a new scheme that will allow an unlimited number of refugees to enter the country.

People who are interested in providing accommodation will be able to fill out an “expression of interest” form from Monday, after which they’ll be kept up to date with the latest developments as the scheme launches.

The scheme, which was unveiled by the secretary for levelling up, housing and communities Michael Gove, will allow Ukrainian refugees to be matched with a UK-based ‘sponsor’, who will be expected to provide rent-free accommodation for a minimum of six months.  

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Those permitted to stay under the scheme will be granted leave to remain in the UK for three years and will be able to work, claim benefits and access public services during that time.

However, the Refugee Council has said that the plans don’t go far enough to address the urgency of the situation Ukrainian refugees are facing – and warned that the scheme may leave refugees without the support they need.

“We are worried about ensuring the safety and wellbeing for Ukrainians who have fled bloodshed, and the level of support available for their sponsors,” Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council said.  

Ukrainian refugees are welcomed in Berlin
Ukrainian refugees are welcomed in Berlin.

“We are talking about very traumatised women and children whose experiences are unique, and the level of support needs to match that. It’s like asking people to be foster carers without any robust checks, training or having a social worker in place to support them.” 

The new scheme comes after the Parliamentary Health and Service Ombudsman called for “swift action” from the Home Office to speed up visa processing for Ukrainian refugees following reports of people facing “chaos and confusion” as a result of the current process.

In a statement issued last week, the official body – which investigates complaints about government departments and the NHS in England – called for the Home Office to remove unnecessary delays and bureaucracy in the visa application process and improve its resourcing, efficiency and transparency.

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“Millions of refugees from Ukraine have faced long and harrowing journeys to get to places of safety in Poland, Belgium, France and other countries,” said Ombudsman Rob Behrens. 

“They want to be safe and reunited with their family members in the UK as soon as possible. It is vital the Home Office acts to correct failings in its handling of visa applications, especially failings we have previously reported and which we are seeing repeated here.

“In this horrendous situation, swift action is needed to make sure the process of getting a visa is simple, accessible and quick. Lives depend on it.”

Ukrainian refugees
The Parliamentary Health and Service Ombudsman has called for “swift action” to address the delays in visa application.

In the meantime, the government has opened up a temporary Visa Application Centre in Lille to speed up the visa application process. Refugees will not be able to make appointments at the centre – instead, it is offering ‘protected appointments’ for individuals referred by Border Force officials in the local area.  

“The UK stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Ukraine and we have taken urgent action to process visas at speed for all those eligible to the Ukraine Family Scheme, while carrying out vital security checks,” a government spokesperson said in a statement.

“We have protected appointments at all of our visa application centres to ensure there is sufficient capacity and deployed extra staff to help people through the process as quickly as possible.

“In light of the risk from criminals actively operating in the area around Calais, we have set up a new temporary Visa Application Centre in Lille which will open tomorrow focused on referrals only for people in the area eligible for the scheme.” 

As reported 8 March: The Russian invasion of Ukraine may have begun less than a month ago, but it has already triggered what the United Nations has described as the fastest and largest displacement of people in Europe since the second world war.

Over 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine to the neighbouring countries of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova over the last 17 days – a number that is estimated to grow to 4 million over the coming weeks.

While aid organisations and local people alike have been providing the refugees who cross the border with short-term provisions, attention is now turning towards a more permanent solution for the millions of people who have been displaced. 

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Here in the UK, this has led many people to question what the government is doing to support Ukrainian refugees in both the short and long term. 

As stands, the government has announced two new schemes to help refugees come to the UK, but it has faced criticism for the numerous barriers that remain in place for people fleeing the conflict, especially in light of the fact that only 50 visas have been issued to refugees so far.

So, what is the UK currently doing to support Ukrainian refugees? And how have experts responded to the support offered so far? Let’s take a closer look. 

Are Ukrainian refugees allowed to come to the UK? 

Ukrainian refugees at the border crossing in Poland
Ukrainian refugees at the border crossing in Poland.

As the situation currently stands, the government has established tw0 routes for Ukrainian refugees to settle in the UK.

The first is the Ukraine Family Scheme, which allows refugees with immediate or extended family members in the UK to reunite with their families. The scheme initially only allowed immediate family members to come to the UK, but was expanded to include parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings following criticism.

The scheme is free to apply to and will allow refugees to stay in the UK for three years. While in the country, refugees with this visa will be allowed to live, work, study and access public funds, and normal requirements for salary and language tests are being waived. 

The second route for refugees fleeing Ukraine to come to the UK is through the Local Sponsorship Scheme, the final details of which are currently being confirmed. 

The scheme will allow sponsors, such as communities, private sponsors or local authorities, to bring refugees to the UK. There will be no limit on the number of people who can come to the UK through this scheme.

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Ukrainian people who are currently in the UK on work, study or visit visas are also being given support to switch to different visa routes, and those on seasonal work visas are having their leave temporarily extended.

In a statement issued to Stylist, a government spokesperson said: “Last week we announced a new sponsorship route which will allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK to be sponsored to come to the UK.

“This is alongside our Ukraine Family Scheme, which has already seen thousands of people apply, as well as changes to visas so that people can stay in the UK safely.

“The routes we have put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners. This is a rapidly moving and complex picture and as the situation develops we will continue to keep our support under constant review.”

What are people saying about the government’s response? 

Ukrainian refugees walking near the Polish border
Experts have criticised the UK government's failure to provide humanitarian access for refugees.

The response to the government’s current plans has been predominantly critical, with experts and MPs alike saying the scheme does not go far enough to address the needs of the millions of people fleeing the Russian invasion.

In a statement issued in response to the government’s plans, Enver Solomon, CEO of the Refugee Council, said the charity was “concerned” that the current options available to Ukrainian refugees will allow far fewer people to reach safety in the UK than the government claims.

“Sponsorship is a slow process and in recent years has only resulted in hundreds of refugees coming to the UK,” Solomon said. “A scheme offering humanitarian visas to Ukrainian families fleeing war and coming to the UK as refugees would be a far more effective way of offering sanctuary.

“The government must also not rule out working with the UN in the coming months to put in place a robust resettlement scheme in the same way as has been done for Syrians and Afghans fleeing bloodshed.” 

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Solomon continued: “It is imperative that the government ensures there are sufficient resources put in place for health, education and other services to support Ukrainians when they arrive, and that the difficulties Afghans have faced accessing healthcare, childcare and education are not repeated.”

The Labour MP Yvette Cooper has also been vocal in her criticism of the government’s current efforts.

Taking to Twitter this morning to respond to reports that a third route for refugees may be opened, she said: “Total chaos from government. This isn’t good enough. Families are struggling, being turned away or waiting days for visas. We need urgent action to get people to sanctuary in UK. Home Office was warned weeks ago by British intelligence that an invasion was coming. Why didn’t they plan?” 

The Nottingham East MP Nadia Whittome also wrote: “Two weeks ago, Boris Johnson told me that the UK would ‘receive those who are fleeing’ from Ukraine. 1.7 million people have now fled Ukraine. Just 50 have been granted UK visas. This government should be ashamed.”

And the French interior minister Gerald Darmanin has written a strongly worded letter to Patel about the UK government’s response, calling it “completely unacceptable” and accusing Britain of “lacking humanity” for its failure to help Ukrainian refugees arriving in Calais.

“It is imperative that your consular representation, exceptionally and for the duration of this crisis, is able to issue visas for family reunification on the spot in Calais,” Darmanin wrote. “Our coasts have been the scene of too many human tragedies. Let’s not add to that those Ukrainian families.”

However, Patel said that it was “wrong to say we are turning people back” and said the Home Office has people on the ground in Calais supporting Ukrainian families.  

What other support has the UK government given to Ukraine? 

Ukrainian refugees
The government is sending humanitarian and defensive aid to Ukraine.

Alongside the sanctions it has imposed on Russia and Belarus, the UK is providing additional humanitarian aid for vital medical supplies and other help, as well as providing defensive military aid to the Ukrainian armed forces in the form of weapons.

The government is also matching every pound donated to the Disaster Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal up to the value of £20 million.

Stylist reached out to the Home Office for comment but is yet to get a response.

For more information about how you can help refugees fleeing Ukraine, check out this article.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.