London announces simpler refugee process for Ukrainians

Patel’s move reaction to criticism mere 850 visas granted out of 22,000 applications

British home secretary Priti Patel has announced a simplification of the application process for eligible Ukrainians seeking refuge in the UK with the government under mounting pressure to make the scheme more generous.

The changes will remove the need for in-person appointments for those who qualify for the “family reunion” route to the UK, which requires applicants to have a close relative in the UK.

The move is designed to speed up the process as only 850 visas have been granted so far out of 22,000 applications. The home office estimates that 50,000-60,000 Ukrainians live in the UK, which would mean that about 100,000 refugees would seek to use the family scheme.

There has been cross-party criticism of the British government’s response to the refugee crisis, which is much more limited than the EU programme that allows all Ukrainians to enter the bloc with minimal checks and live and work there for three years.

In recent days, pressure has mounted on the government as it became apparent that the family reunion scheme was slow to issue visas. On Wednesday, former prime minister David Cameron added his voice as he urged the government to introduce a more generous refugee scheme.

The government has also promised to open a second route for Ukrainian refugees, which would allow individuals, businesses or charities to sponsor people, but it has not yet explained how that scheme will work.

Right documentation

Michael Gove, the levelling-up and local communities secretary, is preparing another humanitarian visa route to allow more refugees to come to the UK, government insiders confirmed.

Many refugees with family members in the UK have travelled to the French port of Calais to apply for a UK visa, only to be told by British Border Force officers they must go to the consulate in either Paris or Brussels to obtain the right documentation.

In an attempt to speed up processing in France, the UK announced it would open a "pop-up" centre in the northern French town with free transport offered from the port of Calais, 108km away. But anyone using that must be referred by Border Force officers at the port, according to reports.

Ms Patel told MPs on Thursday that making the family visa scheme primarily digital from March 15th would mean it would be “quicker and simpler” for refugee applications to be processed.

“Ukrainians with passports will no longer need to go to a visa application centre to give their biometrics before they come to the UK,” she said.

Ms Patel said the UK’s application centres across Europe would instead focus on those without passports or ID cards, noting there were 13,000 appointments available per week.

She said the changes had been taken following assurances from the security services. “Vital security checks will continue in all cases,” she said.

Yvette Cooper, Labour's shadow home secretary, welcomed the announcement but criticised Ms Patel's "shameful" slow response and asked why the changes would only be implemented from next Tuesday.

Abramovich sanctioned

Separately, Roman Abramovich was one of seven Russians hit with a full asset freeze and travel ban by the UK on Thursday, in the government's most aggressive crackdown on oligarchs since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Mr Abramovich, who shot to prominence in the UK after buying Premier League club Chelsea in 2003, is accused by the government of having benefited financially and otherwise for decades from close links to Russian president Vladimir Putin.

The government, which has been criticised for not moving quickly enough to sanction oligarchs, also unveiled measures against Oleg Deripaska, the founder of London-listed metals group EN+, and Igor Sechin, chief executive of Rosneft and one of Putin's closest confidants.

"Today's sanctions show once again that oligarchs and kleptocrats have no place in our economy or society," said UK foreign secretary Liz Truss. "With their close links to Putin, they are complicit in his aggression."

The move plunged Chelsea, whose success Abramovich has bankrolled over the past two decades, into chaos and imperils his ability to sell the club. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022