Boris Johnson creates new minister to deal with Ukrainian refugee crisis

Succession of Tory MPs condemn Home Office for ‘dragging its feet’ over visa applications

Boris Johnson has created a new minister to deal with the growing refugee crisis after a succession of Conservative MPs condemned the Home Office for failing Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion.

The prime minister was forced to act on Tuesday after Tory backbenchers joined opposition members in claiming that Priti Patel’s department has been “dragging its feet” over visa applications.

Richard Harrington has been appointed as the minister for refugees, Downing Street said. Harrington, a lobbyist and businessman who was previously minister for Syrian refugees and stepped down as an MP in 2019, will be made a life peer sitting in the House of Lords.

His appointment comes as 45 charities including Oxfam, Save The Children and the Refugee Council have sent a letter to the Guardian claiming the government’s “chaotic, heartless and unkind” polices send a clear message to Ukrainians that they are not welcome in the UK.

The backlash from MPs came in the Commons after it was revealed that the UK has so far issued 500 visas to Ukrainian nationals seeking sanctuary.

The EU has warned that as many as five million could flee to the bloc if Russia’s invasion continued amid demands from MPs and lawyers for ministers to relax or streamline visa rules.

Ministers have continued to resist visa waivers or allowing Ukrainians to apply once they have arrived in the UK, claiming there is a security risk that Russian agents could enter the UK.

At a Commons session that Patel did not attend, Sir Roger Gale, the MP for North Thanet, claimed the home secretary had misled the House on Monday by claiming that a visa application centre had been set up for Ukrainians in Calais.

He said: “In response to my question yesterday, the home secretary said: ‘I have already made it clear in terms of the visa application centre that has now been set up en route to Calais that we have staff in Calais.’

“That was untrue and under any normal administration that in itself would be a resignation [matter].”

On Monday afternoon, there were still signs in Calais telling refugees to go to centres in Paris or Brussels.

The Home Office minister Kevin Foster replied indicating that Patel had on Monday also said that a new processing centre for visas would soon be set up.

“I understand the home secretary clarified her remarks yesterday. There is a reason why we believe it is right that key security checks are done before people arrive here in the UK,” he said.

MPs told ministers that they had received letters from constituents requesting help bringing loved ones from Ukraine and offers of charity for Ukrainian people because the Home Office appeared unable to help.

Conservative former immigration minister Mark Harper said the government needs to “grip the pace of this” while Andrew Murrison, another ex-Tory minister, asked why the Republic of Ireland has welcomed more than 2,000 refugees from Ukraine but the UK has “come nowhere even close to that”.

Alec Shelbrooke, the Conservative MP for Elmet and Rothwell, demanded the Home Office “get a grip” on processing visa applications for Ukrainian refugees.

“Does the Home Office recognise that this is a war of the likes that has not been seen for 80 years in Europe? We don’t want to stand in this house and listen to plans and processes, we want dates, we want action … This is a disgrace,” he said.

The Conservative MP Julian Sturdy said his York Outer constituents were ready and willing to offer help, adding: “The only barrier to their support seems to be Home Office bureaucracy.”

Jason McCartney highlighted the “vibrant” Ukrainian community in his Colne Valley constituency. “We’ve done so much on sanctions, on humanitarian aid and on military aid so why are we dragging our feet with all this bureaucracy?” the MP said.

The Home Office is currently trying to expand its operations in cities near the Ukrainian border to process applicants. Hundreds of people seeking help are already in Calais but have been asked to apply from Paris or Brussels.

The department is understood to have accepted dozens of staff from HMRC to help with the current crisis and is training more people to deal with visa applications.

By Wednesday, the Home Office plans to have opened a new office in Lille, 75 miles away from Calais, which can process visa applications from Ukrainians who have travelled to the port. It is also examining funding a travel service from Calais to Lille.

Harrington will report jointly to Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and the Home Office.

Last year, he was reprimanded by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments after taking up a role as the chair of the public affairs firm APCO UK without seeking prior permission from the “revolving door” watchdog.

He also set up the Conservatives’ ‘No 10 club’, where mid-range Tory donors socialised with senior politicians in exchange for a £10,000 annual membership.

In their letter to the Guardian, the charities said the government shows a “callous disregard” for the UN Convention on Refugees.

“By setting up a limited and restricted family scheme [for Ukrainians] and making a vague promise to establish some kind of humanitarian sponsorship programme, its [the government’s] response looks chaotic, heartless and unkind.

“At the same time, it is pushing ahead with its cruel nationality and borders bill that will undermine the right to refugee protection and criminalise Ukrainians, Afghans and others who, through no fault of their own, are forced to make their own way to safety.

“It seems the government has chosen to send a clear message to refugees from Ukraine and elsewhere that they are not welcome,” the letter reads.

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Ukraine. We are doing everything possible to ensure a rapid visa service for those eligible to the Ukraine Family Scheme while carrying out vital security checks.”


Rajeev Syal and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ukrainian activist berates Boris Johnson over Russia response
Daria Kaleniuk interrupts media conference in Warsaw to press UK PM over sanctions and no-fly zone

Rowena Mason Deputy political editor

01, Mar, 2022 @3:51 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson’s six-point plan for Ukraine turns out to be six vague principles
PM’s plan – already all but forgotten – resembled something a toddler might come up with for a school assembly

John Crace

07, Mar, 2022 @7:59 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson accused of scapegoating migrants over Channel comments
PM accused of using ‘inaccurate’ language after describing crossings as ‘dangerous and criminal’

Jamie Grierson and Dan Sabbagh

10, Aug, 2020 @4:46 PM

Article image
Boris Johnson condemns anti-lockdown protesters’ treatment of BBC’s Nick Watt
Journalist angrily confronted and pursued in incident described by prime minister as ‘disgraceful’

Ben Quinn

15, Jun, 2021 @6:57 PM

Article image
Johnson turns truth on head in lines about UK response to Ukraine refugee crisis | Zoe Williams
When you stand up and deliberately mislead, call the worst the best, it all starts to sound a bit Putin-esque

Zoe Williams

09, Mar, 2022 @3:57 PM

Article image
Lib Dems call for Priti Patel to be sacked over handling of Ukraine refugee crisis
Leader Ed Davey’s comments come as Michael Gove announces details of ‘homes for Ukraine’ scheme

Heather Stewart

13, Mar, 2022 @12:33 PM

Article image
British nationals fear permanent separation from Ukrainian family
While some got their loved-one’s visa just in time, other Britons have Ukrainian relatives stuck in a war zone

Nicola Kelly and David Batty

25, Feb, 2022 @5:40 PM

Article image
Priti Patel refuses to waive all visa rules for Ukraine refugees
Home secretary cites concerns over extremists and Russian agents entering UK amid growing unrest among Tory MPs

Rajeev Syal, Jessica Elgot and Nicola Slawson

28, Feb, 2022 @10:55 PM

Article image
UK faith leaders call on Boris Johnson to not ‘close door’ on refugees
Letter to PM demands compassionate 11th-hour amendments to nationality and borders bill

Diane Taylor and Haroon Siddique

28, Feb, 2022 @12:01 AM

Article image
‘It doesn’t make sense’: Ukrainian teenager left in limbo by Home Office
Vlad Ksheminskyi, 16, is one of hundreds of teenagers still waiting for a Homes for Ukraine decision

Emily Dugan

29, May, 2022 @9:13 AM