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Ukraine: Visa Restrictions for Refugees

Volume 819: debated on Monday 28 February 2022

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will remove all visa restrictions for refugees coming from Ukraine.

My Lords, I am sure that the thoughts and prayers of your Lordships’ House are with all those in Ukraine. This Government stand with Ukraine. However, a visa waiver is not the solution to the challenges faced by Ukrainians. Visas are an important security tool. In addition, there are now no direct travel routes from Ukraine to the UK. The safest route for people to leave Ukraine is via neighbouring countries to the west. We have made changes to the immigration system to support both British nationals and their families in Ukraine, and Ukrainians in the UK. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has announced additional support measures today.

My Lords, that is a very disappointing response to the critical position which so many people face in Ukraine. Last week, the Prime Minister said that this country would do what it has always done and receive those who are in fear of persecution. So far, however, all that has been done is to allow immediate family members or fruit pickers to apply for visas. It has been a shameful response.

I believe that the Refugee Council spoke for the British people when it made a plea for the Government to immediately establish safe routes and to work with the EU and others. Will the Government take in those refugees without their having to apply for asylum?

I think it might be helpful to refer to some of the things that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced earlier today. She said:

“Ukrainian nationals on an existing points-based system route … can extend their leave in the UK … Ukrainian nationals on an existing visitor visa can exceptionally switch into a points-based system immigration route without having to leave the UK … Ukrainian nationals on an existing visitor visa can apply under the family route for further leave without meeting the immigration status requirement, provided they meet the requirements for leave based on exceptional circumstances … Ukrainian nationals on an existing seasonal worker visa will have their leave in the UK extended to 31 December 2022.”

The noble Lord also referred to some of the measures which have been taken with regard to families. I apologise for the long answer, but I will also say that we have surged staff to visa application centres in neighbouring western countries.

My Lords, how is it that our Government keep talking about unwavering support for Ukraine, and how it is possible that we pride ourselves on doing more than any other European country? We are doing less to accept those people who are in crisis. Will the Minister do something to help them?

I thank my noble friend for that question. It is important to restate that this Government have done a hell of a lot to support Ukraine.

Objectively, they have. I also think it is important to emphasise again that visas are an important security tool. There are, unfortunately, a small number of people who, due to their connection to Russian intelligence services, for example, may represent a threat to UK national security. Security checks related to the visa application process assist in addressing this threat. I of course accept that there is a humanitarian crisis, but the appropriate route is via the visa application centres in neighbouring countries.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, said at the Dispatch Box in an answer on the first Oral Question that it is about playing our part. Telling people fleeing Putin’s bombs to apply for a fruit-picker visa is not playing our part. What has stopped the UK Government acting with the same speed and compassion as the 27 EU countries in granting Ukrainians fleeing war asylum for three years without having to apply for a visa?

My Lords, I do not think it is fair to talk about fruit-picker visas. I would also point out that, as I have just said, there are no direct travel routes from Ukraine to the UK at the moment. The safest route for people to leave Ukraine is via neighbouring countries to the west. We have, as I say, searched after visa application centres. Dependents of British nationals resident in Ukraine who need a UK visa can apply through new temporary locations in Lviv or through a visa application centre in nearby countries, including Poland, Moldova, Romania and Hungary. We are setting up a new pop-up visa application centre in Rzeszow in Poland next week.

My Lords, the Bible says that we should be kind to strangers. Would the Minister agree that the policy of the Government in that respect is not in accord with Christian teachings?

I agree that we should be kind to strangers, and I am afraid I do not agree that the Government’s policy is not in accord with Christian teachings.

My Lords, while my noble friend must surely agree that we may be a world-leader in supplying defensive armaments to the people of Ukraine, and no doubt a world-leader in supplying defence forces to train the defensive forces of Ukraine, he must also agree that we are now not a world-leader in looking after the people of Ukraine. We must allow those people to come here, without the bureaucracy that the visa system would add. These are genuine people, fleeing what is only to be described as terror in their own country. These are not economic migrants, spies or traitors. These are relatives of the people already living in this country, and we should make sure they can get here quickly and uninterrupted.

I thank my noble friend for that question. I have to go back to what I said earlier, I am afraid. We believe that visas are an important security tool. However, there are safe and legal routes for people to apply for visas.

My Lords, does the Minister remember that the reason we have a refugee convention in the first place is because we have been here before, with ships of Jewish refugees not being allowed to stop at any safe port? The Minister has said now at least twice that people should go west and claim in the first safe country. The Government repeatedly tell us that that is where they should claim asylum and that is where they should stay. How does that involve us doing our part?

I understand the point about ships, but there are no direct travel routes from Ukraine to this country at the moment. The safest route for people to leave Ukraine is via neighbouring countries to the west.

My Lords, might I suggest to the Minister that it is not very difficult to get from Poland or Slovakia to England? Why cannot the Government, if they insist on using visas, set up an entirely separate system wherever anybody is trying to get to this country, so that they can be fast-tracked and not go through the main system?

I do not know how difficult it is at the moment to get from Poland to this country, but I take the noble and learned Baroness’s point. As I have already said, I am afraid the safest route is to apply is via the visa application centres.

My Lords, I have every sympathy for the Minister trying to defend the indefensible. He has to do that; that is his job. However, what are we going to say to Poland and Moldova and all the other neighbouring countries about how we will take our share of those who will arrive in the first instance into their country but who they cannot support entirely on their own because they will need the support of other countries to the west, including ourselves?

I thank the right reverend Prelate for his sympathy. I do not know, unfortunately, what conversations will be had with those neighbouring countries, but they must, by definition, be ongoing.

My Lords, I think most people in this country will be baffled by the response of the Minister and upset by the fact that the Government have not got a grip of the refugee crisis that faces Europe. We have been proud of the way our Government have acted to support Ukraine, but hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing across the border and the Minister has simply turned round and said that there is no safe route for them to get here. It is not good enough. Families need a reunification programme, and we should set an example to the rest of Europe—the way we have done with the rest of the Ukraine crisis. It is not good enough. The Government need to get a grip and give us something to be proud of.

I thank the noble Lord for that. On the family side, we are allowing Ukrainian family members, settled persons or British nationals to come to or remain in the UK where they would otherwise not meet the core requirements of the family rules. We will make applications under the family rules fee-free for this cohort. This will mean applicants will be exempt from the immigration health surcharges, as well as visa fees. There will be a pathway to settlement if they are unable to return to Ukraine when their leave expires, and department officials will be reaching out to the Ukrainian diaspora in the UK, seeking their support to house and support Ukrainian family arrivals. This is one of the most generous family reunion offers that we have ever made to any country in the world, demonstrating our firm commitment to the people of Ukraine.

My Lords, the Minister says that visas are an important security tool. Can he say whether, if I was a Ukrainian settled in the UK and I had elderly parents—say, in their 90s—in Ukraine right now, they would have to apply for a visa to come to the UK in the normal way? Yes or no.

It is not a simple yes or no question, as the noble Lord knows. There are safe and legal routes, as I have tried to explain, via the visa application centres and via the family reunion rules that have been announced.

My Lords, I have listened carefully to the Minister’s answers, but last night the Prime Minister joined a mass at a Ukrainian church in London and said that thousands of refugees would benefit from the suspension of normal visa rules in the light of the humanitarian crisis developing in Ukraine. How does that square with the answers the Minister has given this afternoon?

I answered partially that question earlier, when I talked about the announcements that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made. I will not run through those again, but I think it does square with them. I appreciate the points the noble Lord was making.

My Lords, the First Minister of Wales has said that Wales should be a country of sanctuary. What discussions are the Government having with Wales to allow Welsh people who can vouch for somebody coming from Ukraine to come in, particularly when those families in Wales are prepared to provide financial support for travelling and so on?

I am afraid I do not know what conversations are being had with the devolved Administrations, but I would imagine they are ongoing in the normal way.

My Lords, will the Minister remind the House of the figures that were given to your Lordships during consideration of the Nationality and Borders Bill about the number of people who are currently in our system and whose asylum claims have not yet been settled, and how long it normally takes for a visa to be processed and expedited through our system?

My Lords, I want to follow on from the question of the noble Lord, Lord Paddick, about Ukrainians who are settled here with elderly parents. I think there is a lack of clarity about this. There seems to be some provision if those parents need care, but of course a technical provision of needing care under some kind of medical provision is different from a confused older person who is extremely unsafe and just needs their family. Will people in that situation be allowed to come to the UK and stay in the UK? Will their families be able to go and pick them up from wherever they are in Europe and bring them here safely?

I thank the noble Baroness for that question. I can only refer back to the answer I gave earlier on family concessions. My understanding is that those things will be dealt with under those rules.

My Lords, the Minister will have noted the general dissatisfaction of the House with the answers he has given to all the questions. Some questions he did not know the answer to; to others, he has given very sparse answers. Will he undertake to report back to his colleagues and try to come back next week to give us more satisfactory responses, after the wide range of discomfort and dissatisfaction there has been with his answers today?

My Lords, can the Minister explain the Government’s stance on preparing accommodation for those whom we will eventually allow to come from Ukraine, after the rather unsatisfactory approach to accommodation for those who have come from Afghanistan?

I cannot answer that at this stage. As I said, we will be reaching out to members of the Ukrainian diaspora to seek their help and support with this, but beyond that, I am afraid that I cannot go.

Will my noble friend confirm that, under the provisions of the Nationality and Borders Bill before us this afternoon and later this week, the Government will not seek to arrest and prosecute Ukrainian refugees who may happen to arrive on boats from northern France?

The noble Baroness asks me to stray into territory we will be visiting later, and I am afraid I cannot do that.

One of the answers the Minister struggled with before was confirming that it is relatively easy to get from Poland to the United Kingdom at the moment. There are more than 670 flights a week from Poland to the UK; a simple check on Skyscanner can confirm that. Will he please confirm one thing: that Ukrainian people fleeing—even to join their family, as my noble friend said—will not be charged £95 and will not have to wait in a long process? Please can he confirm that there will be an expedited process and it will not cost a penny?

The noble Lord has obviously had better access to Google in the past few minutes then I have, so I apologise for being unable to answer the earlier question on flights because I did not know the answer, but I have said that under the family reunion rules, that will be fee-free for this cohort.