Britain has not set up a route for Ukrainian refugees to reach UK shores, it emerged last night, as thousands headed to the border following the Russian invasion.
The UK has stopped accepting visa applications from Ukrainians stuck in the country, meaning there is no safe and legal route for them to seek asylum in Britain unless they have British relatives.
Countries surrounding Ukraine are braced for an exodus and the UN Refugee Agency has warned of “devastating humanitarian consequences”.
The United States has predicted that up to 5 million people could be displaced by the conflict, and Poland alone is preparing to receive up to 1 million refugees.
Steady lines of people carrying backpacks and dragging suitcases formed at border crossings on Thursday, hours after Russian tanks rolled across Ukraine’s eastern borders.
The International Rescue Committee urged states to commit their support publicly, with senior representative and former French minister Harlem Desir telling The Independent: “This should not be looked at as another migration crisis. This is a crisis of war. It should not be business as usual, we need real support for the Ukrainian people.”
Boris Johnson told the House of Commons on Thursday that 1,000 troops had been put on standby “to help the humanitarian exodus in neighbouring countries” and insisted the government was helping British nationals.
However, an announcement on the Home Office website said: “Ukrainian nationals in Ukraine (who aren’t immediate family members of British nationals normally living in Ukraine, or where the British national is living in the UK), are currently unable to make visa applications to visit, work, study or join family in the UK.”
It said the UK visa application centre in Kiev was closed and all related services in the Ukrainian capital have been suspended.
People fleeing Ukraine at the border with Hungary on Thursday (Reuters)
Dependents of British nationals can apply in the city of Lviv, in western Ukraine, but Ukrainians without close British relatives can only obtain UK visas if they reach centres in Poland, Romania, Hungary and Moldova.
Priti Patel has announced visa concessions for Ukrainians who are already in Britain for work, study and tourism, extending the time period before they must leave the country.
But there has been no announcement of a resettlement scheme or other measures in response to an expected exodus of refugees, despite offers of help from numerous other countries.
Mr Johnson’s spokesperson said: “In terms of refugees, obviously it’s relatively early time at the moment. But we have provided support already to help at the border should we start to see a humanitarian crisis emerge, and obviously we are ready to deploy that.”
The Independent understands that the government expects many Ukrainians to stay in eastern Europe in the short term, or in Schengen countries where they can stay visa-free for 90 days, and is not immediately bracing for a rise in small boat crossings.
Ministers are pressing ahead with plans to make arriving in the UK “without permission” a criminal offence punishable up to four years in prison, which would apply equally to asylum seekers of all nationalities.
Queues at the Ukraine-Poland border crossing on Thursday (Reuters)
The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) previously called the plans “deeply concerning” and said criminalising the act of arriving in the UK to seek asylum violates the 1951 Refugee Convention, which the government denies.
The Nationality and Borders Bill, which is currently being considered by parliament, follows a change to immigration rules meaning that asylum applications from people who have temporarily resided in safe third countries can be declared “inadmissible”.
It means Ukrainians forced to travel to countries such as Poland, in order to obtain UK visas, may later be refused asylum.
EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Thursday said EU members neighbouring Ukraine were working on contingency plans to “welcome and host” refugees.
World news in pictures Show all 50 1 /50 World news in pictures World news in pictures 1 March 2022 Members of an Ukrainian civil defense unit pass new assault rifles to the opposite side of a blown up bridge on Kyiv’s northern front AFP/Getty World news in pictures 28 February 2022 Members of the Ukrainian community of Rome collect basic necessities to be distributed to the Ukrainian population, at the church of Santa Sofia in Rome, Italy EPA World news in pictures 27 February 2022 Protesters crowd around the victory column and close to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin to demonstrate for peace in Ukraine AFP/Getty World news in pictures 26 February 2022 The Swiss Air Force fly in front of the Weisshorn mountain in the Swiss Alps prior to the start of the FIS Alpine Ski World Cup in Crans-Montana, Switzerland AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 25 February 2022 A Ukrainian firefighter walks between at fragments of a downed aircraft seen in in Kyiv AP World news in pictures 24 February 2022 Firefighters work on a building after bombings on the eastern Ukraine town of Chuguiv. Russian armed forces are trying to invade Ukraine from several directions, using rocket systems and helicopters to attack Ukrainian position in the south, the border guard service said AFP/Getty World news in pictures 23 February 2022 A woman wearing a face mask walks next to decorations at a shopping mall in Bangkok, Thailand EPA World news in pictures 22 February 2022 Anganwadi workers take part in a protest march near Delhi’s chief minister Arvind Kejriwal’s residence, demanding better facilities and working conditions for women AFP/ Getty World news in pictures 21 February 2022 An elderly woman stands in a street of the city of Avdiivka, eastern Ukraine AFP/Getty World news in pictures 20 February 2022 High waves in Doolin in County Clare on the west coast of Ireland PA World news in pictures 19 February 2022 Sui Wenjing and Han Cong of China in action in Beijing, China Reuters World news in pictures 17 February 2021 A part of a damaged wall crashes onto the pavement during a storm in Berlin, Germany AP World news in pictures 16 February 2022 Syrian firefighters extinguish fire following artillery shelling by the Syrian regime on a fuel depot affiliated to the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) jihadist group in the northwestern rebel-held town of Dana AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 15 February 2022 Austria’s Cornelia Huetter competes in the womens downhill final during the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games at the Yanqing National Alpine Skiing Centre AFP/Getty World news in pictures 14 February 2022 A Taliban fighter directs traffic as a street vendor sells red heart-shaped balloons for Valentine’s Day, in Kabul, Afghanistan AP World news in pictures 13 February 2022 Russian Navy’s diesel-electric Kilo class submarine Rostov-on-Don sails with an naval ensign of the Russian Federation, also known in Russian as The Andreyevsky Flag on it through the Bosphorus Strait on the way to the Black Sea AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 12 February 2022 People participate in the Winter Snow Sports Festival in Kalam AFP/Getty World news in pictures 11 February 2022 A tank during joint exercises of the armed forces of Russia and Belarus as part of an inspection of the Union State’s Response Force, at a firing range near Brest Russian Defence Ministry/AFP/Getty World news in pictures 10 February 2022 Multiple exposure photo of Magdalena Czyszczon of Poland during the Speed Skating warm up at the 2022 Beijing Olympics Reuters World news in pictures 9 February 2022 An Indian hand rickshaw puller waits for customers in front of a building displaying posters of different theater shows in Kolkata, India AP World news in pictures 8 February 2022 Starlings overfly Zaragoza, Spain EPA World news in pictures 7 February 2022 Performers dressed as superhero characters pose with a child receiving the Pfizer-BioNtech Covid-19 vaccine for children aged 5-11 at a gym in San Juan City, suburban Manila AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 6 February 2022 Cars stop before a flooded area, after Cyclone Batsirai made landfall, on a road in Vohiparara, Madagascar Reuters World news in pictures 5 February 2022 A woman carries a child as locals who were displaced by Cyclone Ana find refuge in an evacuation centre at the West Ankorondrano neighbourhood, Madagascar Reuters World news in pictures 4 February 2022 Performers take part in the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, at the National Stadium, known as the Bird’s Nest, in Beijing AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 3 February 2022 Italian Air Force aerobatic display team, the Frecce Tricolori, perform during the inauguration of the president of the Italian Republic, in Rome. Sergio Mattarella was elected for a second term EPA World news in pictures 2 February 2022 Italian athletes during training ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics Reuters World news in pictures 1 February 2022 People are sprayed with foam at an amusement park as part of holiday festivities on the first day of the Lunar New Year of the Tiger in Yogyakarta AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 31 January 2022 Arterial roads are lit up as morning commuters drive along at dawn in western Beijing ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 30 January 2022 Rafael Nadal reacts after beating Daniil Medvedev in the men’s singles Australian Open final. In doing so, the Spaniard won a record-breaking 21st grand slam title AFP/Getty World news in pictures 29 January 2022 A worker cleans up crude oil on Mae Ram Phueng beach following a spill caused by a leak in an undersea pipeline owned by Star Petroleum Refining Public Company Limited in Rayong, Thailand Getty World news in pictures 28 January 2022 Medical staff in personal protective equipment are seen at a speed skating training session for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Reuters World news in pictures 27 January 2022 Los Angeles sculptor Dan Medina has honored the anniversary of the deaths of Kobe and Gigi Bryant along with seven other passengers by placing a temporary statue of the two where their helicopter crashed two years ago today in Calabasas, California REUTERS World news in pictures 26 January 2022 The Central Reserve Police Force during the 73rd Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi, India EPA World news in pictures 25 January 2022 A winter swimming enthusiast dives into a partly frozen lake in a partly frozen lake in Shenyang, in northeastern China’s Liaoning province AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 24 January 2022 A newlywed couple from the US enjoys a snowfall during a photo shooting near the Acropolis in Athens AFP via Getty Images World news in pictures 23 January 2022 Anti-vaccine and mask activists act out getting a vaccine during a ‘Defeat the Mandates’ rally on the National Mall in Washington, DC, USA EPA World news in pictures 22 January 2022 Horse patrol of the 2nd Lublin Territorial Defense Brigade on the border with Belarus in Wlodawa, Poland EPA World news in pictures 21 January 2022 Carlos Hebert Plante dives into freezing waters to use his boogie board as extreme cold weather hits Montreal, Quebec, Canada Reuters World news in pictures 20 January 2022 Children wearing traditional uniform take part in the children’s ‘Tamborrada’ drum event to mark San Sebastian patron saint’s Day, in Basque Country, northern Spain EPA World news in pictures 19 January 2022 A woman poses for a picture near an ice hole as a man takes a dip during celebrations of the Orthodox Christian feast of Epiphany in the settlement of Ivanovskoye in the Moscow region, Russia REUTERS World news in pictures 18 January 2022 Soldiers march during celebrations to mark Royal Thai Armed Forces Day at Chulabhorn Camp in the southern Thailand province of Narathiwat AFP/Getty World news in pictures 17 January 2022 Novak Djokovic prepares to take his seat on a plane to Belgrade, in Dubai, after losing his bid to stay in Australia to defend his Australian Open title despite not being vaccinated against COVID-19 AP World news in pictures 16 January 2022 A dog drinks water from a tap on Bondi Beach in Sydney Getty World news in pictures 15 January 2022 The Patrouille Suisse jets perform prior to the Men’s Downhill race at the Fis Alpine Skiing World Cup in Wengen, Switzerland EPA World news in pictures 14 January 2022 Hindu devotees take a dip in the waters of river Narmada in Budhni, on the occasion of Makar Sankranti, a day considered to be of great religious significance in Hindu mythology AFP/Getty World news in pictures 13 January 2022 Kuwait City’s al-Hamra tower (right), the headquarters of The National Bank of Kuwait (centre) and the al-Rayah tower (left), caught in heavy fog AFP/Getty World news in pictures 12 January 2022 An Ivory Coast supporter cheers before the group Africa Cup of Nations match between Equatorial Guinea and Ivory Coast at Stade de Japoma in Douala AFP/Getty World news in pictures 11 January 2022 A shopkeeper poses for a photo in front of a shop selling decorations in the old quarter of Hanoi ahead of the Lunar New Year or Tet holiday AFP/Getty World news in pictures 10 January 2022 Members of the Serbian community march in Melbourne, Australia, in support of tennis player Novak Djokovic, who was being kept in an immigration detention center after his visa was revoked upon landing in the country EPA
“We hope there will be as little as possible refugees but we are fully prepared for them and they are welcome,” she added.
Ireland’s taoiseach Micheal Martin said the country would waive visa requirements for all Ukrainian people who travel there.
It came as figures showed the number of asylum claims made in the UK at the highest level in nearly two decades, while the backlog of cases waiting to be determined continues to soar.
Almost three-quarters of asylum claims were granted on an initial decision, and almost half of appeals were successful.
A Home Office document said the increase in applications was linked to the easing of Covid travel restrictions “and to a sharp increase in small boat arrivals to the UK”, of which “almost all claim asylum”.
In total, more than 28,5000 people crossed the Channel on small boats in 2021 – triple the number in 2020.
A government spokesperson said: “Our priority has been to support British nationals and their families in Ukraine. This has included temporarily waiving application fees for those eligible under the Family Migration route, allowing entry for 12 months for other who did not meet the requirements and fast-tracking visas.
“We continue to work with our international partners on a range of issues as the situation develops, including migration.”