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Ukrainian Refugees

Volume 820: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to facilitate trains to the United Kingdom for refugees fleeing from Ukraine.

My Lords, the Government have focused on ensuring that Ukrainians can access the right legal routes to come to the UK and have no plans to facilitate travel or transport. The Government have put in place a generous humanitarian offer to Ukrainians fleeing the devastating invasion of their country. That includes introducing two new schemes: the Ukrainian family scheme and, for those without family links to UK, the Homes for Ukraine scheme explained by my right honourable friend Michael Gove yesterday. Noble Lords will have received a letter explaining that scheme in some detail.

I refer noble Lords to my entry in the register. The Minister will be aware that something like 3 million people have now fled Ukraine, mostly to the west, I think. The Prime Minister offered 200,000 people to come here and 4,000, I believe, have already been given visas; that was before Mr Gove’s welcome announcement. Does the Minister have any idea how the people are going to get here? On the continent, European Union Governments and the railways are offering free travel anywhere. Some operators are putting on special trains. Will the Government do the same here or are they going to kick everybody out at Calais and make them pay for the joy of coming here through the tunnel or going on a ferry? I hope the Minister has thought this through, because with the numbers coming up it is going to be a major problem that needs planning now.

My Lords, I accept the premise of the noble Lord’s Question, of course, but I refer him to the fact that we have just witnessed the introduction of my new noble friend Lord Harrington of Watford. He is going to ensure that the measures that are taken are co-ordinated across government, and I am sure that that will be part of his brief.

My Lords, I spent part of last week on the Polish/Ukrainian border and I was very struck by how many volunteers from Poland and the rest of Europe were transporting people to wherever they wanted to go. It was a kind of open-source transport, way better than any Government could have managed because it was all done by volunteers. It was a very humbling and awe-inspiring thing to see. But I was also struck by the fact that very few of the people I spoke to had any plans to come to the United Kingdom. They either wanted to go to where they had friends or relatives or, if they did not, they wanted to stay near the place where they had left their men behind. Will my noble friend the Minister accept that, whatever faults there have been with our Home Office—and I am the first to criticise its lamentable failures—the issue is not one of transportation, which has been laid on amply.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that contribution. Of course, I agree. A point that has been made consistently throughout this crisis is that people, generally speaking, want to stay as close to their menfolk as possible—and who can blame them for that?

My Lords, will the noble Lord take the opportunity to pay tribute to the brave Ukrainian train drivers and crew who have evacuated 2 million people since the war began on 24 February, even while their trains, their railway lines and their stations have been bombed by Putin’s planes and artillery, intent on destroying refugee routes? Will he note that two days ago a train leaving Donetsk was bombed, killing the conductor and injuring a woman, and was hit just before it was due to collect 100 children from the nearby railway station to evacuate them? Are the noble Lord and the Government collecting the evidence of such incidents to ensure that those responsible for these war crimes will ultimately be brought to the Hague and tried for the things that they have done?

I absolutely agree with my friend, if I may say that: the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The world’s Governments are collecting the evidence, as has been made very plain. I salute the courage of all those in Ukraine and, in particular, the train drivers to which he refers. If I may, I would like to stray wildly from this topic and single out another instance of courage: that of the Russian TV producer Marina Ovsyannikova, which the world witnessed yesterday. My thoughts—and I am sure those of all noble Lords—are very much with her, and I am sure that President Putin would like to know that the world is watching.

My Lords, I very much agree with the comment about the Russian TV producer. She is a very brave woman indeed and I hope we will do all we can to try to protect her at this distance. Whatever the mode of travel that refugees fleeing Ukraine use, would it not be better if we facilitated their journey by dropping the visa requirement, as other European countries have done?

My Lords, on the subject of visa waivers, the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have stated on numerous occasions that we will not be issuing blanket visa waivers in response to the crisis. Security and biometric checks are a fundamental part of our visa process in order to keep people in this country safe. This is consistent with our approach to the evacuation of Afghanistan. It is vital to keep British citizens safe and the humanitarian visa process that was announced yesterday will open the doors, but we also need to ensure that we are helping those in genuine need. We are already seeing people presenting false documents and claiming to be Ukrainians. This is a fluid and fast-moving situation.

My Lords, I want to ask for help for Ukrainian refugees once they arrive here. Will the Minister undertake to discuss with the Department for Transport the provision of free travel from the point of arrival to the place where they are going to settle initially? Will he look beyond that to a scheme of free travel for the first month or so, so that those folk can start to sort out their lives once they arrive here?

I will certainly commit to have those discussions, but I suggest that my new noble friend Lord Harrington of Watford will be perfectly placed to do that. As noble Lords will know from the letter that was sent by my right honourable friend Michael Gove yesterday, the financial support that will be put in place is very generous.

My Lords, the noble Lord opposite makes a valid point with regard to rail travel across Europe, but it is difficult to see how the British Government could secure the co-operation of the railway companies in a co-ordinated fashion. Historically, one of the most efficient ways to move refugees has been by air. Our commercial airlines, such as British Airways, have leased aircraft and the RAF has always been key to doing this. Can my noble friend update us or liaise with the Department for Transport and the Foreign Office to see what steps we are taking? If we are moving women and children, and we know that we are going to bring a huge proportion of them to the UK, the safest and most efficient way would be to get them to various airfields and bring them straight to the UK with a relatively short journey.

I thank my noble friend for that and of course I commend all those organisations which have already offered support of the sort she describes. I stress that we have had to remind carriers that individuals with a free seat still need the relevant visas. However, my noble friend makes some very welcome suggestions and I will make sure that my noble friend Lord Harrington is apprised of them.

My Lords, a family is named in Moldova, Romania or Poland and has been sponsored by me or someone else but does not have the money for transportation. If it is all agreed on all sides, will the Government help with transportation?

I have just answered a question along those lines, so I am sorry to disappoint the right reverend Prelate, but I cannot agree that at this point. However, the scheme has been in operation for only 24 hours, so let it develop and I am sure these questions will be dealt with.

The Statement indicated two stages of the humanitarian visa scheme. The second one concerned the participation of community groups in this country. Is the Minister able to give us any indication of when the details of that scheme will be released?

I believe the details will be released this Friday, which I think is 18 March. This scheme was designed in consultation with a large number of NGOs and the like. Yesterday my right honourable friend pointed out some of the names. They include the Refugee Council, the Red Cross, the Sanctuary Foundation and others. I am quite sure that will be in the second phase of the announcement.

My Lords, we will get war criminals to The Hague only if we win. The way to win wars is by having strong armed forces. Are we going to put some money into our Armed Forces? Many countries in Europe have realised that they must now do so, particularly Germany, and the Australians have increased theirs by 80%, whereas we seem to be doing nothing about the Armed Forces, who, to me, seem rather important in wars.

My Lords, the noble Lord is asking me to stray across departmental briefs, which I am reluctant to do. However, from a personal point of view, I might not disagree with him. I take this opportunity to commend the work of 104 Brigade, which I was reading about this morning. It is involved in theatre sustainment and is currently based in Stuttgart. It is co-ordinating our international military supplies and others.