An extended visa scheme to allow more people from Ukraine to join relatives in the UK has been launched by the government, but plans for a humanitarian refugee scheme to help those without family ties in Britain have yet to be announced.
The Home Office said it had increased its weekly visa processing appointments in the region from 500 to 6,000 a week to speed up applications from individuals hoping to join relatives in Britain, and increased the amount of time people will be allowed to stay in Britain from one to three years. Officials said it was too soon to say how many people would apply.
With the UN reporting that 1 million people have already left their homes in Ukraine, and warning that 4 million could flee the country if the conflict escalates, refugee organisations called on the government to speed up the announcement of a wider humanitarian scheme.
Officials have promised that an “unlimited sponsorship route” will open soon for Ukrainian’s without family ties here, allowing communities, local authorities and others to sponsor and support those in need to come to the UK, but say that details of how it will operate are still being worked out.
The British Red Cross welcomed the family visa announcements, but called for the government to allow Ukrainians to travel here without a visa, “in line with the approach taken in the EU”, adding it was “vital that people who don’t have family in the UK are able to get here safely too”.
Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said it was not yet clear whether the schemes being devised by the government would match those already announced by the EU.
“Any Ukrainian who wants to get to the UK should be able to do that through a safe and immediately accessible route. The most effective way would be to grant them humanitarian visas, to allow them to come as a refugee and be entitled to all the support that they need.”
The Ukraine family scheme will allow parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren and siblings of British nationals and people settled in the UK to join relatives in the UK; they will be granted the right to work and to claim benefits. The scheme is radically different from the evacuation programme launched in response to the Afghanistan crisis in August, because officials assume that those who apply will stay with relatives and are not proposing to block book hotel rooms to accommodate them.
More than 250 British immigration lawyers have come together to offer pro-bono assistance to people applying for visas; CJ McKinney, coordinating the Ukraine Advice Project, said dozens of emailed requests for help were coming in every hour.
The home secretary, Priti Patel, visited Poland to look at the UK’s visa processing systems on Friday, and said: “While we want people to be able to return to their homes at the end of this diabolical invasion, giving thousands of people a route to the UK is the right thing to do.”
Despite the launch of an expanded scheme, several Ukrainians trying to flee to the UK told the Guardian of difficulties they were having in obtaining visas.
Yakiv Voloshchuk, 60, a British citizen, rescued his Ukrainian wife, Oksana Voloshchuk, 41, and their diabetic daughter, Veronika, 15, from Poland’s border with Ukraine on 26 February and drove them to the UK visa centre in Paris. They began to queue for a visa for Oksana and Veronika on Monday morning but say that even though they were eligible for the earlier visa scheme announced by the Home Office, Oksana and Veronika have still not obtained their visas. The family is becoming increasingly desperate and is running out of money.
Adil Arslan is a British citizen living in the UK with his Ukrainian wife, Tetiana Hill, but her children, Maksym and Alina, Arslan’s stepchildren, are stranded in Ukraine, spending much of their time sheltering in an underground bunker. No visa has yet been granted even though the scheme announced on Friday includes stepchildren.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has said there should be a more flexible “emergency protection visa”. “People need a simple and safe route to sanctuary right now,” she said.