Ukraine: UK must give emergency visas to refugees, says Labour

The UK government must set up emergency visa offices now and conduct on-the-spot security checks for refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, the shadow home secretary has said.

By Mary O’Connor & Joseph Lee www.bbc.co.uk

Watch: Yvette Cooper calls for emergency visa centres for Ukrainians over UK’s “chaotic” response

Yvette Cooper said most refugees were “still being held up by Home Office bureaucracy or being turned away”.

Britain has granted family visas to about 500 Ukrainian refugees so far, a Home Office minister said.

Kevin Foster said 10,000 applications to enter the UK had been submitted.

The Home Office has been criticised over the way it has handled issuing visas for Ukrainians who want to join relatives in the UK.

Unlike the European Union – which is allowing Ukrainians three-year residency without a visa – the UK has retained controls on entry.

There are two visa routes for those fleeing Russia’s assault on Ukraine – one for people with family in the UK, and another, which Mr Foster said is being set up “at pace”, requiring a British sponsor.

But MPs described reports of chaotic scenes at some visa centres, with Labour MP Clive Efford saying people were being forced to wait outside in freezing temperatures, while Tory MP Tracy Crouch said the centre in Rzeszow, Poland, was not offering appointments until the end of April.

Calais authorities said almost 300 Ukrainian refugees have been turned back at the French port by the UK Border Force, while hundreds were stuck trying to complete paperwork for visas.

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Responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, Mr Foster told MPs that a new visa processing centre would be established in the northern French city of Lille and that officials were looking at setting up transport from Calais to the new offices.

He insisted ministers would “not take chances with the security of this country and our people” – citing the Salisbury Novichok attack in 2018 – where Russian nationals used a nerve agent in an attempt to murder the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

“A crucial part of the application process is providing biometrics so we can be sure applicants are who they say they are”, he said, before claiming officials had seen people at Calais “with false documents claiming to be Ukrainian”.

Criticising the absence of Home Secretary Priti Patel in the Commons, Labour’s Yvette Cooper called for visa centres to be established at all major travel points, on-the-spot security checks and for Ukrainians to be given emergency visas.

“The government should not be continuing to change this in a chaotic way, rather than opening the system properly,” she added.

Ms Cooper criticised the apparent lack of clarity over the locations and operation of visa centres.

She said: “Yesterday the home secretary told the House twice that a visa centre en route to Calais has now been set up but it still doesn’t exist.

“The foreign secretary just said it might be in Lille – nearly 72 miles from Calais.

“The Home Office said this morning that no decision had been taken. Well, which is it? Has it? Where is it? Can people get there yet?”

A string of Conservative MPs have joined opposition politicians in demanding further and faster action from the government in helping Ukrainian refugees enter the UK.

Conservative Mark Harper, a former immigration minister, said even if security checks were needed, the government needed to “grip the pace of this” and called for a minister to set out the details of the humanitarian sponsorship route within days – not weeks or months.

Another former minister, Andrew Murrison, questioned why the Irish Republic, which is in the Common Travel Area with the UK, has been able to accept 2,000 refugees already while Britain is “nowhere even close to that”.

Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke said the speed of response was a “disgrace” during “a war of the likes that has not been seen for 80 years in Europe”.

Former Home Office minister Damian Green asked why biometric checks could not be carried out in the UK where refugees would be “safe and sound”.

But Mr Foster said that people applying have already travelled to safe countries, and added that the government did not think it would be appropriate to use immigration detention powers to hold people in the UK while checks were being carried out.

Breaking News: MoD offers assistance to get Priti Patel’s “S*** Show” up and running

Just as news is coming in that the “Calais Visa Application Centre” announced to parliament yesterday will open in Lille:

MOD offers Op Pitting-style assistance to process Ukrainian refugees

www.forces.net

Ministry of Defence (MOD) assistance has been offered to the Home Office as visa applications are processed for Ukrainians fleeing the war zone.

The Defence Secretary said help from the MOD has been offered, which he likened to the department’s role in the mission last year to evacuate Afghanistan, as part of Operation Pitting.

On Monday night, the Home Office said 300 visas had been issued from a total of 17,700 family scheme applications which have been started, 8,900 of which have been submitted.

Following reports hundreds of Ukrainians at Calais have been told they need to travel back to Paris or Brussels to apply for a visa, Ben Wallace told BBC Breakfast: “We need to upscale it, I know that the Home Secretary has already doubled, or trebled in some cases, more people in different processing centres.

“We can do more, we will do more.”

Mr Wallace added in an interview with Good Morning Britain that he will provide Home Secretary Priti Patel with “as many people as she likes” to assist with processing visas.

He said they would be MOD officials rather than personnel because Armed Forces cannot be deployed to France without permission from Paris.

Russia invaded Ukraine last month, with Mr Wallace this morning describing Vladimir Putin as a “spent force” in the world.

“No-one will be taking his phone calls in the long term,” the Defence Secretary told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“He has exhausted his army, he is responsible for thousands of Russian soldiers being killed, responsible for innocent people being killed, civilians being killed in Ukraine.”

Tory co-chairman’s luxury firm for oligarchs says it’s pulled out of Russia after fury

A spokesperson for Quintessentially – directed by Tory co-chairman Ben Elliot – tonight [Monday] said it had withdrawn its franchise licence in Russia after boasting about how it provided “luxury lifestyle management” to Moscow’s elite.

Why does it take Tories so long to get the message? – Owl

www.mirror.co.uk for full story

Just 300 Ukrainian refugees granted visas to come to the UK

No visa application centre in Calais. Try Paris or there is limited availability in Brussels. – latest from BBC

Amelia Gentleman www.theguardian.com 

The number of Ukrainian refugees granted visas to come to the UK under the new family scheme has risen from about 50 to 300, the government has announced, leading Labour to criticise the “shockingly low” figure.

On Monday, the Home Office said a total of 17,700 applications had been started, adding that about 9,000 people had not yet completed the application. Some applicants said it was hard to complete applications because the visa appointment website crashed midway through.

Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the development was “shockingly low and painfully slow”.

Ukrainians attempting to flee to safety in the UK have described intense frustration and anger at the bureaucratic hurdles and technical difficulties involved in securing a visa under the new scheme.

Numerous applicants said they were stuck in unfamiliar countries on the border with Ukraine, unable to come to the UK because they were wrestling with the complex application process. Some said they were having difficulties uploading crucial documents or the application website was crashing, while others said there were no appointment slots available to finalise their applications, or that they were dismayed to be asked to post supporting documents to an office in Wandsworth.

Families in the UK who are trying to help relatives make their way to Britain said they were confused by the complexity of the visa form.

“I understand they are under pressure with many applications, but the system is not flexible. This is a humanitarian crisis,” a British citizen, who asked not to be named, said, as she struggled to submit a visa application for her aunt and 14-year-old cousin who have fled Kyiv and are currently in Romania.

An apparent glitch in the system meant she was unable to upload documents proving the family connection, and received an email telling her she should post supporting documents to an address in Wandsworth, along with a fee of £75 per application (or £100 for a priority service) for the documents to be scanned. When she called the Home Office hotline on Sunday, staff said they were aware of an issue with uploading documents. “I’m furious with the process. My aunt has fled war, grabbed only important belongings, doesn’t speak English and desperately wants to be with family.”

Matthew Peat, a senior manager with an accountancy firm, described trying to help his sister-in-law and her nine-year-old daughter, who had travelled from Ukraine to Rome, where they were hoping to get a UK visa appointment. However, when he attempted to book a slot for them, the only appointments he could access were in Poland.

“It would now appear that the only way to progress this matter is to ask our exhausted and distressed family members to travel from Italy to Poland to access the system there,” he said. “They are feeling very depressed and feel that they are not welcome here.”

Refugee organisations said these bureaucratic and technical issues highlighted the case for replacing a complex visa application with a simpler, visa-free humanitarian refugee scheme. Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “Instead of persisting with its insistence on visas or on sponsorship schemes for traumatised Ukrainians fleeing an active war zone, the UK should be putting in place fast-track refugee arrangements.”

Andriy Marchenko, the deputy Ukrainian ambassador in London, urged ministers to apply the proposed new scheme as a matter of urgency.

He added: “Ukrainians are known to be diligent, hardworking people who will be providing for themselves here. They will not overstay their welcome and at the end of their term in the UK they will return home to rebuild their country.”

Lawyers working with applicants under a pro bono scheme, the Ukraine Advice Project, highlighted concerns that the family scheme was limited in its definition of immediate and extended family members, and did not include in-laws or nieces and nephews of British citizens, unless they are under 18. There was also concern that a significant number of Ukrainian nationals working or studying in the UK were excluded from the scheme, and that many people were struggling to get appointments to submit biometric data (photographs and fingerprints).

A government spokesperson said it had “surged staff and increased the number of appointments” at its visa application centres in the region.

News that the last UK visa centre operating in Ukraine had closed at the end of last week prompted Adil Arslan, a British citizen, to set off to drive to Ukraine on Monday to collect his stepchildren, Maksym, 17 and Alina, 11, who were being cared for by grandparents. “I can’t just sit and wait in the UK while bombs are being dropped everywhere. Why on earth is Home Office not acting more swiftly?” he said.

Nataliya Rumyantseva, who lives in the UK and is of Ukrainian heritage, is one of the few who has succeeded in obtaining a visa for her mother, Valentyna Klymova, 69, who fled Ukraine soon after the invasion began by walking across the border into Hungary.

Klymova was only granted the visa after spending three days in Paris and going between the UK embassy, consulate, visa processing centre and UK immigration officials at the Gare du Nord train station.

“Not everybody can afford to spend several nights in hotels in Paris,” said Rumyantseva. “It creates a kind of existential despair in Ukrainians trying to reach the UK when they have to go through this after escaping from the war. The Home Office needs to simplify the visa process for Ukrainians.”

‘Admission of corruption’: Jacob Rees-Mogg mocked after Russian money claim backfires

Cabinet minister’s evidence apparently shows UK ‘sheltering more dirty money from Russia than anyone else’

www.independent.co.uk 

Jacob Rees-Mogg has been mocked after his claim that the UK “leads the way” in sanctioning Russian banks backfired spectacularly.

The Cabinet minister took to social media over the weekend to defend the government’s record on sanctions, following criticism that it had been too slow.

To make his point the Tory MP produced a chart showing the UK had sanctioned £258.8 billion, compared to £240 billion in the US and £38.8 billion in the EU.

But opposition politicians were quick to point out that the chart suggested there was simply more Russian money worth sanctioning in London than elsewhere.

Labour MP Chris Bryant said: “All this proves is that thanks to the Tories all the dodgy Russian money is in London. It’s an admission of corruption!”

His colleague Karl Turner added that the minister’s claim in fact showed the “actual scale of ill-gotten Putin money his utterly disgusting Tory Government have let in”.

And ex-Lib Dem leader Tim Farron said: “I think this tells us more that the UK is where most of Putin’s billionaires were enabled to safely put their money in the first place.”

SNP MP Peter Grant added: “So that must mean the City of London was sheltering more dirty money from Russia than anyone else?”

Despite the high cash figures produced by Mr Rees-Mogg, the government has sanctioned far fewer individual businessmen with links to the Kremlin than its neighbours – and been slower to do so.

According to figures collated by Bloomberg last week the European Union had sanctioned 490 Russian entities, Canada 413, Australia 407, Switzerland 371, the US 118, Japan 40 and the UK 16.

The UK government says that it has sanctioned far more and claims its figure is closer to 228 following a rush of measures last week.

But an analysis by the BBC’s Reality Check unit has found this figure open to dispute because it it includes subsidiaries and individuals within companies. Whatever the precise figure, the UK is widely regarded to have not gone as far or as hard as its neighbours, despite its rhetoric.

The government has also faced criticism more widely for having let the UK become a hub for Kremlin-linked money in recent decades.

Minister Cuts Interview Short After Clashing With Kay Burley Over Refugee Numbers

James Cleverly clashed with Sky’s Kay Burley when she pressed him over the exceptionally low number of Ukrainian refugees granted UK visas interview on Monday.

Kate Nicholson www.huffingtonpost.co.uk 

The Home Office has only granted 50 Ukrainians visas allowing them to come to the UK out of a total of 5,535 who have completed their applications as part of a new refugee scheme.

Defending the low numbers, the Europe minister claimed the UK would “of course be generous and open-hearted to Ukrainians, as you’d expect.

Burley then played a clip from a British man fleeing Ukraine from his family, who tried to get the UK from Calais but was stopped by border patrol. She said: “So we’re not making it easier at all are we?”

The minister just said he was not familiar with that individual case.

Burley claimed “it was not acceptable” to let only 50 people come to the UK, especially as a hundreds of thousands have fled to Poland.

It’s worth noting that the UN has declared the Russian invasion has triggered the fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War 2.

France’s interior minister has dubbed the UK’s policies towards Ukraine “inhuman”.

Even so, Cleverly said: “This situation has only occurred in the last couple of days. Of course the vast majority of people have just crossed the borders into neighbouring countries. And of course, what we are saying is that we are supporting them there.”

He said “we are also going to host the Ukrainians temporarily”.

He ignored Burley as she kept asking “when” while he promised to welcome Ukrainian refugees to the UK once the “processes” to house them are in place.

The Sky News anchor said: “These people literally are fleeing for their lives!”

Agitated, Cleverly replied: “Kay, if you’re going to ask me a question, let me answer it.”

Burley said: “We only have a limited amount of time, and you’re going off on a tangent.

“This is what my viewers want to know this morning, if I may!”

The minister continued defending the scheme and said: “The process has only just started. The vast majority of people are in the nations neighbouring Ukraine.”

She interrupted by saying, “minister, if I may”, adding again that she only had a limited amount of time to talk to him on the show.

“I’ve asked you several times and we’ve gone round the houses on that one,” Burley replied.

The Sky presenter continued asking about the UK’s support for Ukraine, but about two minutes before he was due to speak on his next interview, Cleverly said he had to leave – which ministers rarely do.

He said: “Kay, unfortunately I do have to go. I told your studio that I have to be clear for another interview I have at 7.20. I’m afraid I have to go now.”

“Make of that what you will,” Burley concluded after a pause, as the interview came to an abrupt end.

On Sunday, home secretary Priti Patel promised that she was “doing everything possible” to help the Ukrainians, despite facing intense criticism over the Home Office’s reluctance to accept more refugees.

In addition to the 5,535 who have finished their online applications, an extra 2,368 have booked a visa appointment and 11,750 people have started their applications but have yet not completed it.

The new scheme means anyone with family members in the UK can stay in Britain for up to the three years.

Despite citing security claims for her initial reluctance to drop the regular points-based system for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian war, Patel claimed at the weekend that this new system is “the first scheme in the world that’s up and running in this short period of time”.

The prime minister also claimed that approximately 200,000 Ukrainians could use this programme.

Cleverly maintained throughout his media round that this is the process needed to let people into the UK, but – like other ministers – suggested Ukrainians would prefer to settle in countries close to their home nation, rather than Britain.

He also told BBC Breakfast that we were “absolutely” doing enough to help people fleeing the warzone, blaming various “processes” for the delay in accepting them to Britain.

“We are a generous country and we will be in this circumstance,” he said.

The minister told BBC Radio 4′s Today that he was actually not certain how many Ukrainians had been granted to the UK.

Presenter Nick Robinson said it was a “source of shame” more people had not been accepted, but Cleverly maintained that a support system still needed to be set up before allowing more refugees into Britain.

Economic Crime Bill to bolster UK’s ability to target Russian oligarchs sails through Commons

First promised by David Cameron in 2014, this has been a long time coming and then rushed through. – Owl

Alix Culbertson news.sky.com 

A new Economic Crime Bill to bolster the government’s ability to target Russian oligarchs has been pushed through the Commons.

The Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Bill received an unopposed third reading on Monday evening and will now go to the House of Lords for further scrutiny.

It was rushed through the Commons in the hope it will be passed in time to deter Russian oligarchs from the UK following Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.

The aim of the bill is to make it difficult for people to hide their wealth in the UK, especially from overseas, including criminals and people wanting to hide illicitly acquired money – especially through property purchases.

The bill has faced multiple delays and there was speculation it might have been dropped, but it was tabled last week after Russia invaded Ukraine and was fast-tracked through the initial stages.

Most opposition parties support the bill, but some MPs feel there are too many loopholes.

However, with the government’s safe majority, all proposed amendments were voted down.

Here are some of the key elements of the bill:

Register of overseas UK land ownership

A register of overseas entities would be set up, so the actual owners of land or property in the UK bought by people or companies overseas in the last 20 years would be named.

At the moment, many multi-million pound homes in the UK are owned by shell companies based overseas, so it is not possible to know who the actual owner is.

Failure to name the actual owner of property would be a criminal offence under the bill, with up to five years’ in jail.

More powers for investigators

Investigators would also be allowed to target people who manage properties within complicated offshore arrangements, even if they’re not the actual beneficiary.

And the National Crime Agency will be protected against extortionate legal costs for going after these very wealthy people, as long as they act reasonably and properly.

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London’s oligarchs on sanctions

Sanctions

Under the bill, it would be easier for the UK to sanction individuals as they would no longer have to have, or be suspected to have, breached sanctions law.

The UK has faced criticism for the relatively small number of oligarchs it has sanctioned since the Ukraine invasion started compared with other countries such as the US. However, the government maintains it is doing all it can.

Unexplained wealth orders

Unexplained wealth orders would also be tightened up, so people will have to explain how they gained their money.

This is in the hope of catching or preventing those who are suspected of gaining their money through illicit or criminal means.