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01 March 2022

Ukraine: Refugees

Given the ongoing events in Ukraine, the British government is facing growing calls to waive visa rules for Ukrainians seeking to travel to the UK for sanctuary from the conflict.

To date the UK government has released temporary visa concessions for family members of British nationals who usually live in Ukraine (under certain conditions) and further concessions for Ukrainian nationals already in the UK to extend or switch visa routes. Ukrainians can still attend biometrics appointments at the Lemberg Business Centre in the city of Lviv or, if they are able, get to UK Visa Application Centres in neighbouring countries.

EU response

In stark contrast to the UK, countries across Europe are announcing plans to host hundreds of thousands fleeing the Russian invasion. The UN has estimated that up to four million people could flee Ukraine, which would represent the largest refugee crisis Europe has witnessed for decades. The Guardian is reporting that so far roughly 368,000 have fled the country.

Ukrainians can still travel into the EU for 90 days without a visa. In order to prevent chaos on day 91, the EU is supporting plans to take in all Ukrainian refugees for up to three years, without asking them to apply for asylum. In order to do this, the EU will, for the first time, use a temporary mass protection law to extend refugees’ residency status without the need of asylum procedures.

Other EU countries are voicing support for this process and are offering further assistance. For example, the Republic of Ireland has waived all visa requirements for all Ukrainian citizens entering the country. Furthermore, Germany’s public national railway company, Deutsche Bahn, announced it was collaborating with railways in Poland to offer free travel and additional space for Ukrainians fleeing war to arrive in Germany.

Surprisingly, some countries in Europe who opposed accepting refugees and asylum seekers from Syria or Afghanistan are happy to open their borders to Ukrainians. For example, Hungary’s hard-line Prime Minister, Viktor Orban, has previously called refugees a threat to his country and a “poison”.

UK response

Last week the Prime Minister was asked about whether the UK would commit to accepting Ukrainian refugees who wished to come to the UK. He did not dodge the question and told the Commons, “This country will continue to do what it has always done and receive those who are fleeing in fear of persecution. That is what we will do.”

In a now-deleted tweet, immigration minister Kevin Foster said that Ukrainians could qualify for the seasonal worker scheme, which allows migrants to come to the UK for up to six months to work in jobs such as fruit picking. Following this there were calls from all sides of the political spectrum for the Home Secretary to clarify what was being done for Ukrainian refugees.

Ukrainian nationals can still obtain visit visas, but this is at a cost of £95 and this visa is for up to six months. This visa is the main alternative available to people who are not eligible for the family migration visa. However, in order to obtain a visit visa application an applicant must demonstrate to the Home Office that they do not intend to reside in the UK. This presents a hurdle to those applying for this route fleeing the war, given that the situation may not be resolved in that time. Furthermore, visit visas may take several weeks to process.

On Sunday evening, the Prime Minister announced that any person settled in the UK will be able to bring their Ukrainian immediate family members to join them here. The updated guidance on the Home Office website still closed the door to certain family members such as parents or siblings.

Given the above, we expect an imminent announcement of a resettlement route or humanitarian visas that would enable people fleeing the war in Ukraine to travel to the UK. This may present the option to claim asylum on arrival, or mirroring the EU bypass that process altogether.

Following the crisis in Kabul, the Home Office announced the Afghanistan Citizen Resettlement Scheme in August 2021, prioritising those most in need including women, girls and children given their particular vulnerability. The route opened five months later on 6 January 2022. When the scheme formally opened, it only applied to Afghan citizens in the UK. The Home Office has stated that ‘spring’ will be the earliest possible date to begin identifying those still in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries that may need to be referred to the scheme. It is only possible to be referred to the scheme by the UNHCR. You cannot apply for it unilaterally.

It is especially important for the Home Office to act swiftly, given that British and American intelligence services were publicising Russia’s intent to invade more than a week in advance. The Home Office plainly had notice and time to start preparing for this eventuality. We wrote about this on 15 February 2022.

The UK has pledged a further £40 million to cover humanitarian aid to Ukraine. The Chair of the International Development Committee, Sarah Champion MP, has written to the Foreign Secretary to request that the government go further in its provision of humanitarian support. One request in Ms Champion’s letter is that humanitarian corridors are established within Ukraine. This is to provide safe routes for the passage of refugees, and to enable the safe passage of humanitarian supplies.

Open Democracy is reporting that a collective of 40 Ukrainian organisations, including media, civil liberties and pro-democracy groups, have requested assistance for the provision of technology and equipment. This is to allow NGOs and human rights lawyers in Ukraine to document the situation on the ground, collating evidence of atrocities and breaches of international law. In turn, this will hopefully strengthen applications already being made to the ICJ.


It is worth noting that the tragedy in Ukraine highlights flaws identified in the Nationality and Borders Bill currently going through parliament this week. We have already commented on this. In short, the bill proposes to treat those who have to travel through other countries before arriving in the UK to claim asylum as inadmissible. This would mean any Ukrainian who arrived in the UK from or via Poland, Romania, Moldova or any other state neighbouring Ukraine would potentially have their claim for asylum deemed inadmissible. This breaches the longstanding non-refoulement principle protected by the Refugee Convention. At this time, we should not be introducing new legislation that seeks to repel and punish people fleeing conflict and war, through no fault of their own, whilst telling the press about our ‘proud traditions’ of protecting those from war zones. There must be substance to these press releases. The UK government was ahead of the EU in terms of its appetite for sanctions, but has now seemingly fallen behind with refugee protection provisions.

We expect that the government will adhere to the Prime Minister’s promises promptly and create a means to assist Ukrainian refugees safely into the UK.

If you have any questions regarding the current policy please do not hesitate to contact Matt Ingham or Richard Milford of the Citizenship and Immigration Team.

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Matt Ingham
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