The government’s announcement yesterday of a new hosting scheme to allow Ukrainian refugees to enter the UK should be cautiously welcomed, but certainly not celebrated considering the horrors unfolding in Ukraine.
For starters, it is unclear why visas remain necessary at all for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. The UK, unlike the remaining 27 members of the EU, is the only country still insisting on Ukrainians having visas before entering the UK. This bureaucratic hurdle may literally be a matter of life and death when seeking to leave a country besieged by war.
The scheme, which in essence allows UK based hosts to “sponsor” a family, also contains a bizarre requirement that would-be hosts must know the name of the person/people they are sponsoring. If the purpose of this is to only allow those with existing connections with Ukraine and Ukrainians to sponsor people, then it will reduce massively the numbers of eligible hosts, in turn reducing the number of Ukrainian refugees who can benefit. If it is solely a tick box exercise, easily met by a simple introduction through a social media platform, then it seems to serve no purpose.
If though this scheme, despite its flaws and the unnecessary delays in its creation, sees more Ukrainian refugees granted the right to enter and reside in the UK, then it is a positive development. A big question remains though as to why the government has not created such schemes for refugees fleeing other recent conflicts.
RAMFEL’s work involves supporting UK based refugees in applying for their family members to join them. This work is challenging, with burdensome procedural requirements – such as attending visa centres that may require crossing dangerous borders – and restrictive rules that limit who qualifies as a “family member”.
Prior to the introduction of its new scheme, the government’s initial response to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine was to expand its definition of a family member so that British nationals could bring parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings from Ukraine to the UK. The thought of your nearest and dearest being trapped in such terrifying conditions does not bear thinking about, but for all other refugees in the UK, such a broad definition of “family member” simply does not exist, and they are limited to sponsoring spouses and minor children.
Any hope of bringing siblings, parents or even children now over the age of 18 is extremely difficult, and reliant entirely on the government exercising discretion and showing compassion. Anyone familiar with the UK’s immigration system will know that it is not known for its compassion.
RAMFEL client, Yasmin, for example has her four younger siblings stuck in Ethiopia. She has applied for them to join her in the UK, but been told in no uncertain terms by the government that there is “no provision within our immigration rules for someone to be allowed to travel to the UK to seek status or temporary sanctuary.”
Yasmin is far from our only client who has been prevented from bringing vulnerable family members to the UK due to the government’s restrictive and inflexible family reunion rules. Another client, Hamed*, is desperately seeking to bring his 15-year-old sister to the UK. She is already a refugee, living in a war zone having fled persecution in her home country, and an independent social worker has confirmed her vulnerability and risk of exploitation to meet her essential physical needs.
Hamed’s sister applied to join him in the UK in October 2021. Five months later, the government has still yet to reach a decision on this application. Hamed is understandably exasperated at the delays, and spends each passing minute terrified about his sister’s welfare.
Others have written extensively about the different tone and approach adopted by the UK and other western governments towards refugees now fleeing Ukraine, and contrasted this warm and sympathetic level of support with when the Taliban retook Afghanistan last summer, when Syrians fled their homes in the mid-2010s or the ongoing war in Yemen. The UK government’s decisions to broaden its family reunion rules to permit more Ukrainians to come here and now introduce their much trumpeted hosting scheme seems like yet another aspect of this preferential treatment for so-called “good migrants”.
RAMFEL supports any government decision that makes it easier for Ukrainians to seek sanctuary here. However, this more flexible and compassionate approach should be applied whenever conflicts break out and men, women and children through no fault of their own are forced to leave their homes and their loved ones in order to survive.
*Name has been changed to protect identity.