On 6 April 2022, the House of Lords is scheduled to hold a debate on the Government’s plans to support refugees from Ukraine. The debate was proposed by Baroness Helic (Conservative).

1.   Current situation

Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine, launched on 24 February 2022, has led to the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the UN refugee agency, estimates that over 4 million refugees have left Ukraine since the start of Russian military operations in the country. Almost half of Ukraine’s refugees are thought to be children. UNHCR notes that an additional 113,000 people moved to Russia from the Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk between 21 and 23 February 2022.

According to UN estimates, a further 6.5 million people have been displaced within Ukraine since late February. The International Organisation for Migration has previously reported there were already almost 1.5 million displaced persons inside Ukraine before the latest conflict, following hostilities in Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts from 2014 onwards.

The reported figures mean that over 10 million people, or almost one quarter of Ukraine’s estimated population of almost 44 million, have had to leave their homes since late February 2022. In addition, at least 13 million people are estimated to be stranded in areas affected by operations or unable to leave where they are due to security risks, damaged infrastructure, or a lack of information or resources.

Karolina Lindholm Billing, UNHCR’s representative to Ukraine, has described the situation in the country as a “massive humanitarian crisis”, the seriousness of which “cannot be overstated”. UNHCR has declared it to be a “level 3 emergency”. This is the highest level, reserved for “exceptionally serious situations in which the scale, pace, complexity or consequences of the crisis exceed existing response capacities”.

Most refugees seeking to escape the conflict have crossed into neighbouring countries to the west of Ukraine. As of 28 March 2022, Poland had seen the highest number of refugees cross its border with Ukraine (over 2.3 million, or around 60% of the total to date), followed by Romania, Moldova and Hungary. The numbers of people who may have moved onward within the Schengen zone from the EU countries in the above list is not known.

The Russian and Belarussian governments have reported refugees crossing their frontiers, although the combined numbers seeking refuge in either country have been far lower than the numbers seeking sanctuary to the west.

Table 1: UNHCR figures on refugees from Ukraine crossing into neighbouring countries

Country Population
Poland 2,336,799
Romania 608,936
Moldova 387,151
Hungary 364,804
Russia 350,632
Slovakia 281,172
Belarus 10,902

(Source: UNHCR, ‘Refugees fleeing Ukraine (since 24 February 2022)’, updated 30 March 2022. Note: the data source for each country listed was given as the government of each state and all data were dated 29 March 2022)

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi has said that the “warm welcome and well-organised reception of Ukrainian refugees has been exceptional and deserves recognition and gratitude”. However, in a statement issued on 25 March 2022, Mr Grandi noted that his agency had “flagged protection risks to groups among those fleeing Ukraine that are of huge concern”. He said:

It is critical that measures are put in place to quickly identify, mitigate and respond to risks of gender-based violence, exploitation, abuse and trafficking of women and girls. We also recognise unaccompanied and separated children, and refugees who are LGBTIQ+, older or living with disabilities have particular needs and could be vulnerable to greater protection risks.

Mr Grandi added that there had been “persistent reports of unequal or discriminatory treatment” of third country nationals seeking to leave Ukraine since the outbreak of the war. He said UNHCR staff would continue to work with authorities inside Ukraine and in neighbouring countries to “ensure everyone fleeing the same violence and tragedy of war in Ukraine is offered the same safety and protection”.

2.   Support for Ukrainian refugees

European Union and other countries

On 4 March 2022, the European Union adopted a temporary protection mechanism for Ukrainian refugees aimed at providing an “immediate and collective (ie without the need for the examination of individual applications) protection to displaced persons”. This mechanism extended rights to reside and work in EU countries to Ukrainian nationals and other legal residents of Ukraine escaping the conflict. This was for an initial period of one year but may be extended. It also means Ukrainian refugees can access housing and medical assistance, and education in the case of children, throughout the EU. UNHCR provides guidance through its country pages on the support available for refugees in different EU countries (for example, in Poland).

UNHCR is administering cash assistance programmes for refugees and host communities in Moldova, which has welcomed the highest number of refugees per capita. It is also facilitating free air transfers to selected EU countries for refugees in the country.

On 24 March 2022, the United States announced plans to welcome up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. It said this would be “through the full range of legal pathways, including the US refugee admissions programme”.

Canada has introduced an authorisation for emergency travel scheme for Ukrainian refugees, which “offers Ukrainians and their family members free, extended temporary status and allows them to work, study and stay in Canada until it is safe for them to return home”.

UK Government policy

The UK Government has launched schemes aimed at supporting different categories of affected person. Each requires a Ukrainian refugee seeking to come to the UK to obtain a visa or official permission letter before they travel. The Government maintains this is necessary so that security checks can be carried out in advance of a person arriving. Current schemes now brought into the immigration rules and other routes include the following:

  • The Ukraine family scheme came into effect on 4 March 2022 and allows family members of British nationals, UK settled persons and certain others to come to or stay in the UK for up to three years. Visa holders can live, work and study in the UK and access public funds.
  • The Ukraine sponsorship scheme (also known as the Homes for Ukraine scheme) allows Ukrainian nationals and their family members to come to the UK if they have a named UK‑based sponsor. Visa holders may stay for up to three years and can live, work, study and access public funds. Sponsors are asked to be able to offer accommodation for at least six months. The Government is offering an optional ‘thank you’ payment of £350 per month for up to 12 months to people who can accommodate one or more household. The scheme opened on 18 March 2022 for applicants with named sponsors.
  • From 3 May 2022, Ukrainian nationals who had permission to stay in the UK on or before 18 March 2022 will be able to apply to the Ukraine extension scheme. The scheme will also be open to partners and children if they were already in the UK as dependants.
  • Existing holders of visitor visas, skilled worker visas, student visas, or seasonal worker visas, may be able to apply to extend these or switch to another visa, depending on their visa type and circumstances.
  • The Government has also said that Ukrainian citizens can continue to make applications to visit, work, study or join family in the UK “in the normal way”.

It is not known how many people might be eligible for the above schemes and/or visa routes. The Government has not set any limits or caps on the humanitarian schemes above. However, it has made limited application and visa-issuing data available. For example, the Government has said that as at 29 March 2022 the UK had issued 22,800 visas as part of the Ukraine family scheme. This was out of 31,200 completed applications received where an applicant is not still awaiting an appointment at a visa application centre. In addition, 2,700 visas had been issued under the sponsorship scheme more than two weeks after its launch, out of 28,300 completed applications so far submitted.

Earlier on 28 March 2022, the Times published a joint letter from the Refugee Council, the British Red Cross, Save the Children, Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee that was critical of current UK arrangements. The groups alleged that those wanting to come to the UK were “having to navigate a complex web of bureaucratic paperwork to get visas, leaving them facing protracted delays without any information about the status of their application”. They added that the visa process for the Homes for Ukraine scheme in particular was “causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians and increasing frustration to tens of thousands of Britons who want to welcome them into their homes”. The groups asked the Government to “urgently review the use of visas and waive them as an immediate short-term measure, as has been done by the EU, and look to introduce a simplified emergency humanitarian visa process”.

On 30 March 2022, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper called the Government’s progress in issuing visas against completed applications “shamefully slow”.

Giving evidence to the House of Commons Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee on the same date, Minister for Refugees Lord Harrington of Watford said the process for resettling Ukrainian refugees in the UK had not been “as seamless as it should have been”. However, he defended the schemes launched to date and said staff were “working evenings and weekends in a bid to speed up the process”. He added the Government was “not trying to slow things up” and that he hoped officials would be able to process 15,000 applications per week via both the family scheme and sponsorship scheme within the next three weeks.

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Cover image by Karollyne Hubert on Unsplash.