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Ukraine: Urgent Refugee Applications

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 8 March.

“President Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is a barbaric and unprovoked attack and we stand shoulder to shoulder with the Ukrainian people. He must fail in Ukraine.

This Government have brought forward a generous humanitarian offer to those Ukrainians who want to come to the UK to escape the conflict. Last week, the Home Secretary announced a new Ukraine family scheme for those with family ties to the UK, and we are extending the scheme further to include aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, cousins and in-laws. The scheme went live last Friday and has already seen over 10,000 applications submitted, for which over 500 visas have been issued, with more being issued as we speak. We have also announced that we are setting up a new humanitarian sponsorship visa, and we are working at pace with our colleagues in the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to set that up. We will also work with the devolved Administrations.

We have made significant progress in a short space of time, on top of the first phase of the package that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary set out to the House last week. I also remind the House that a crucial part of the application process is providing biometrics so that we can be sure that applicants are who they say they are. Sadly, we are already seeing people presenting at Calais with false documents claiming to be Ukrainian. With incidents like Salisbury still in our minds, the Government will not take chances with the security of this country and our people. Our friends in the United States, Canada and Australia are rightly taking the same approach as we are.

I would like to update the House on the measures that we are taking to speed up and process the applications and to ensure that we can help applicants as quickly as possible. We have surged staff to key visa application centres across Europe, particularly in Poland, and moved more biometric kit to support them. We have ensured that casework teams are standing by in the UK to process applications to ensure that there are no delays.

We will also establish a larger presence in northern France to help Ukrainians in the region. It is essential that we do not create a choke point at places like Calais, where dangerous people smugglers are present, and ensure the smooth flow of people through the system from across Europe. Alongside that, we are working with our embassies around the world to ensure that we use our diplomatic channels to support our efforts and to provide the latest information.

We have taken decisive action. We are now providing regular public updates on our casework numbers and we will continue to keep the House updated on this progress.”

The Home Office has not stepped up to the mark in processing urgent Ukrainian refugee applications—no doubt in part because the Home Office culture, as shown by the Nationality and Borders Bill, is geared towards keeping refugees out rather than welcoming them in.

On Monday, the Home Secretary claimed that a visa application centre had been set up en route to Calais and was staffed. Yesterday, however, the Commons Minister said that

“we are looking to establish a presence in Lille ... and we expect that to be set up within the next 24 hours.”—[Official Report, Commons, 8/3/22; col. 198.]

Has the Lille centre now been set up, opened and staffed, and how many visas can it process per day?

A week ago, the Home Secretary announced the introduction of a humanitarian sponsorship visa. Yesterday, the Government said in this House:

“The sponsorship scheme … should be up and running very shortly.”—[Official Report, 8/3/22; col. 1265.]

When exactly is the sponsorship scheme going to be “up and running”? Why does the Home Office still not know? What is needed now is an emergency visa scheme for those fleeing Ukraine. Are the Government going to do that?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions. As of 9.30 am this morning, 17,700 applications had been made, and there were 1,000 grants of visas. We are expecting a further 1,000 grants of visas by the end of the day. I think that noble Lords will agree that that is a positive trajectory.

The Lille VAC will indeed be set up.

In total, we had almost 1,000 offers for the humanitarian sponsorship pathway, which I counted up from across this House, given the details I received from the right reverend Prelate and another noble Lord yesterday. I want to take back to the Home Office—as I said yesterday that I would—the offers of support which are not just from within your Lordships’ House but are coming in thick and fast from all over the country. They will be very helpful when those families and people arrive in the UK.

My Lords, Ukrainian refugees arriving in Bucharest and applying to join families in the UK today are being given appointments on 28 March to have their biometrics taken. What are they supposed to do for two weeks in a foreign city where they know no one, have few belongings and little or no money, when they could be here in the UK with their families?

The noble Lord makes a very understandable point. As I said yesterday to the House, I know that we are training people as we speak, and surging the capacity and capability of our VAC teams from that region.

My Lords, what are we doing to liaise with the Polish authorities, who have received so many of these refugees from Ukraine? Surely, if they have been accepted into Poland, we can arrange quick transfers to the UK for those who wish to come here—many of whom have family members here.

My noble friend will have seen footage of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary there over the weekend. We are in very regular contact with Poland. I just turned to my noble friend to clarify the contact we are having with the UNHCR: it sounds regular and very thorough in enabling refugees to come to this country as quickly as possible. If someone is in Poland, and has had their visa issued in Poland, they are absolutely ready to come to this country. That is the very positive benefit of having VACs in Poland.

My Lords, I heard yesterday that one of the refugee application centres in Poland has no available appointments until the end of April—the end of next month. This seems to be a bureaucratic answer to a humanitarian question. I received an email last night asking, “Is the UK Government ill prepared, incompetent or unwilling?”—and I do not know how to answer it.

Well, I hope I can help the right reverend Prelate in saying that we are surging capacity and capability in the VACs. It is not acceptable if people are being told that they have to wait until the end of April. I certainly hope that, when I next return to this House with an update, it will be a far more positive picture.

My Lords, the whole House recognises that the noble Baroness the Minister is a very empathetic person, and she is quite clear about her sincerity in trying to help refugees from Ukraine. However, the Minister for Justice in Ireland today met Ukrainian refugees arriving in that country and ushered them to a separate room, where they were given national insurance numbers or the equivalent and told how to get help with medical and housing requirements. Why is it that we, a similar nation, are requiring that people apply—very bureaucratically—hundreds of miles away and fill in numerous forms, rather than simply directly accepting people from Ukraine and dealing with them here?

There is one area where I will depart from the noble Lord, which is on the need to make sure that people are who they say they are. If someone says they are Ukrainian and in fact are not—particularly if they are someone who we might not wish to have in this country because of their behaviour—it is really important that that place is not taken by someone who has no genuine right to be here. So I do not make an apology for that, but I otherwise completely concur with the noble Lord. We are country that welcomes people and tries to provide as much support as we can—and, as I said, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary was in Poland at the weekend.

My Lords, the FCDO has organised excellent morning briefings and, this morning, the Foreign Office representative suggested that as many as 2 million people may have now been displaced in Ukraine. Would it not be sensible at those briefing sessions for the Home Office also to be represented? The information that the noble Baroness has been giving would be very useful. Can the noble Baroness confirm reports that 227,000 people have now fled from Ukraine across the Romanian border? Has she seen the representations made to her department by James Grundy, the Member of Parliament for Leigh in the north-west of England, about a small charity that has a house where they have already taken a couple of hundred Ukrainian refugees? Would it not be sensible for the Disasters Emergency Committee to include small charities that are not part of DEC so that they too can be funded to ensure that people can be kept in safe places in Romania or Poland without having to make journeys to other parts of the world?

I think that what the noble Lord has done is outline how the people of Ukraine would actually like to get back to Ukraine. His suggestion about small charities that are able to help, whether here or in Romania, is really sensible. In terms of the numbers crossing into Romania, I cannot verify those figures, but I am absolutely sure that it must be a very high number indeed. On the subject of the morning briefings, he must be able to lip-read, because my noble friend Lord Ahmad and I were in fact talking about that just before we stood up.

My Lords, given the extraordinary nature of our times, exemplified yesterday by the eloquent and historic address by President Zelensky, might the Home Office not rise to the moment and welcome Ukrainian refugees in Calais with open arms, instead of chips and KitKats?

First, I pay tribute to my noble friend’s son, who has opened up his heart and accommodation to Ukrainians. As for welcoming with open arms rather than bureaucracy, I have looked at the figures for the VACs where Ukrainian refugees are fleeing to. By and large, they are in Poland. In Calais, there have been one or two instances where people are not who they say they are, so it is important not only to keep them safe but also to make sure that we are giving refuge to those we want to give refuge to.

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware of the offers made by the Governments of both Scotland and Wales to take in refugees, reflecting the overwhelming good will among people throughout these islands who want to help in these matters. Is the announcement at Question Time this morning by the Prime Minister, concerning the new responsibilities for the Minister for Levelling Up, an indication that the Government may be rethinking this matter?

I heard not much of the noble Lord’s question, but I am guessing that it concerned the appointment of my very dear friend Richard Harrington as Minister for Refugees. I know him well and he will be a superb appointment.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question is now up and I will allow a moment or two to clear the Chamber for those who want to escape before the next business takes place.