Ukrainians offered online route to apply to visas

Move to open up travel documents comes following fierce criticism of government response so far

Credit: Public domain

Ukrainian passport holders will be able to apply for UK visas online from next week, the home secretary has announced, following fierce criticism of the Home Office’s response to refugees fleeing conflict.

Those with a Ukrainian passport and family settled in the UK will no longer need to visit application centres in other European countries to apply for a visa from next Tuesday. 

Advice on GOV.UK states: “From Tuesday 15 March, if you are outside the UK and hold a valid Ukrainian passport, you will no longer need to provide your biometric information from overseas to apply to the Ukraine Family Scheme. This means you will not need to attend an in-person appointment at a Visa Application Centre (VAC). You can instead complete your application online.”

Until next week, applications to the scheme can be made using the current process of submitting the online form and booking an appointment at a Visa Application Centre (VAC).

You must provide a valid email when you submit your application as we will need to contact you with more guidance on the travel process.

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Home secretary Priti Patel said she had decided to alter the Ukraine Family Scheme after receiving new advice from security services. As of yesterday, the government had only granted 760 visas to refugees fleeing Ukraine despite tens of thousands of applications to the family route having been submitted so far.

Until now, Ukrainians have been required to apply at visa application centres outside the UK, which has led to chaotic scenes and reports of staff at visa centres taking “a commercial and opportunistic approach” by encouraging refugees to pay extra for an earlier appointment.

The Home Office has been accused of avoiding solutions which would make it much easier for Ukrainians to come to the UK.

Immigration lawyer Helen Manis told the Home Affairs Select Committee that the government could waive the carrier’s liability that means airlines can be fined if they allow a Ukrainian refugee to board a flight without a visa.

Zoe Bantleman, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said the Home Office could instead remove Ukraine from the list of nationalities needing a visa to visit the UK.

She said border staff could assess refugees’ security risk at the border and, “once in the UK with a visitor route, the home secretary has already allowed a concession for people to switch to other immigration routes”.

“All she would need to do is remove a single word from the immigration rules and this would allow Ukrainians to board planes in the same [manner that] Americans and South Americans can board planes to the UK without changing any of the other restrictions,” Bantleman said.

Manis and Bantleman gave evidence to MPs earlier this week alongside Enver Solomon, the chief executive of the Refugee Council and Iryna Terlecky, a board member of the Association of Ukrainians in Great Britain.

Asked why the government has simplified its visa offer, Solomon said it “looks like” the government wanted to limit the number of people coming to the UK from Ukraine. 

“In comparison with other neighbours we do look rather mean spirited,” he said.

He said the government “seems to be adopting an approach which is paperwork over people – people who have lost everything through no fault of their own”.

The Refugee Council chief exec said the government has chosen to “effectively tinker with a standard visa scheme which is a managed migration route, rather than respond in a way that is required to an urgent humanitarian crisis”.

He called this a “gross oversight” that sends out the message to Ukrainians that “we are not welcoming you”.

Patel has refused to waive the requirement for Ukrainians to have visas to visit the UK, citing security concerns.

But Solomon said the government can fast track Ukrainians into the country, do the necessary checks and then grant them refugee status.

“I recognise that security is a legitimate concern. It was a concern when we evacuated thousands of people from Kabul last summer. But there are mechanisms that we can use to address these challenges.”

Foreshadowing Patel’s announcement, Solomon said there is already a Home Office app that could be used by Ukrainians with passports to take biometric information. He said those without passports could be assessed by UK border staff. 

“We see people turning up to our borders with all kinds of challenges and we deal with them. Other European countries have security issues and are not using this rationale. I think the government is trying to find a reason to justify its very restricted approach,” Solomon said.

Bantleman said the government has “wide powers” to handle security concerns, adding that most of the people coming are elderly people, women and children and unlikely to be security risks. She said security concerns should be weighed against the reality of “millions” of people being displaced.


Sam Trendall

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