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.
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.