One year on: reflections on advising Ukrainian nationals and their family members

By Dmitri Macmillen - 20 February 2023

Our Head of Immigration, Dmitri Macmillen, shares his perspective on the UK's response to the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, acknowledging its successes, explaining its failures, and reflecting on how the government could do better to support all migrant communities.

Over the past year, the experiences of the Ukraine schemes - as lived by Ukrainians and their family members, sponsors, and immigration practitioners - have pushed the boundaries of what many of us accepted as conventional immigration policy. They have also shone a light on wider issues within the UK immigration and asylum system.  

Let's start with several good things about the UK government's immigration policies for those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

The UK's response to the crisis in Ukraine has had some successful elements

The Ukraine Family Scheme allows Ukrainian nationals, and certain non-Ukrainian relatives, to join UK-based immediate and extended family members. The wide definition of 'family member' within the scheme was significant and positive, particularly given the UK government's incremental curbs over the past three decades on the rights of UK-based individuals to be joined by their family members from abroad. The Ukraine Family Scheme has shown the scope of family reunion rights that should be aspired for across wider UK immigration policy, especially given how restrictive the UK's standard immigration family routes are in terms of the types of family members who can apply to come to the UK. 

Eligibility requirements of each of the Ukraine schemes are simpler than most other UK immigration routes, and the Home Office's guidance for the schemes stresses the need for evidential flexibility in the consideration of applications. The sheer number of Ukrainian nationals and their family members who have arrived in the UK over the past year shows what is possible when the UK government commits to safe and legal routes for refugees to come to the UK. Where there is a political will, we can find a way.

But there are issues with the Ukraine Schemes' design and implementation 

One year on from the beginning of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, however, there continue to be significant issues with the design and implementation of the Ukraine schemes, including issues with in-country applications, lack of clear communication channels, and - at times - haphazard policy development and communication. For instance, the rules for in-country applications under the Ukraine schemes prevent a large proportion of Ukrainians who were undocumented in the UK prior to the full-scale invasion from easily regularising their status, despite their country continuing to be in the midst of a war. Non-Ukrainian nationals who had to flee Ukraine after the full-scale invasion, and do not have a Ukrainian family member, cannot apply under the schemes to find refuge in the UK, even if they have a non-Ukrainian family member already living in the UK. 

The lack of clear and effective communication channels with the Home Office, in particular to raise compelling circumstances, as well as unclear application processing timeframes, has been starkly evident in urgent or long-delayed cases. This has led to applicants and practitioners needing to contact MPs and even journalists to try and escalate cases, and applicants having to remain in dangerous conditions if in Ukraine or at risk of precarity if already in the UK

The Home Office has, on occasion during the past year, made policy haphazardly, widening day by day the eligibility criteria of the Ukraine Family Scheme under intense public pressure in the early days of the full-scale invasion, causing unnecessary anxiety to people in the UK about whether their Ukrainian family members could come here. It also previously issued muddled messaging about whether or not (and how) unaccompanied children could apply under the Homes for Ukraine scheme to come to the UK, to the distress of many Ukrainian parents who had sought safety for their children.

Unfortunately, many of the above observations are not unique to the Ukraine schemes, as those with experience of other UK immigration routes can testify. 

Ukrainian refugees' struggles are shared by other migrant communities and disadvantaged Britons

The UK's response to the crisis in Ukraine also lays bare some of the more fundamental issues that affect not only other migrant communities but the wider British population too. We surveyed 191 Ukrainian refugees in August 2022. Many were at imminent risk of homelessness and two-thirds of respondents said they had 'little confidence' in their ability to find private rented accommodation due to high rents, deposits and other barriers, including the need for guarantors. Furthermore, less than a third of respondents had found jobs in the UK, with barriers including the lack of suitable part-time employment opportunities to balance childcare needs, and the unaffordability of childcare support for those wishing to take up full-time employment. In some cases, respondents mentioned barriers related to local transport infrastructures. All of these barriers - to housing and to employment - are also the barriers faced by low-income households, parents, and residents across the country, particularly those in rural locations.

To address the formidable challenge triggered by the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, and to pursue its long-term goal of levelling up, the UK government needs to do more than simply react in a short-term way. It should take this opportunity to develop a proactive refugee integration strategy and to rebuild the UK's ability to cultivate the social mobility of all vulnerable communities. As a charity, we would suggest this starts with an examination of housing stock and practices of exclusion across the private rental sector, and continues with an examination of the structural barriers to employment.

We must maintain solidarity, not just with Ukrainians, but with other migrant and refugee communities

One year on from the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, it is important to reflect on the good things the UK has done to support Ukraine, as well as the gaps in its existing support and the risks facing those who miss out on that support. It is also important to reflect on those refugee communities not so fortunate to benefit from bespoke, relatively generous humanitarian routes such as the Ukraine schemes, and who have to navigate a harsh and broken asylum system which the Home Office has tried to steer Ukrainian refugees away from. 

The work to protect the rights of Ukrainian nationals and their family members, as well as other non-Ukrainian nationals living in Ukraine prior to the full-scale invasion, will go on, but it is important to do so in solidarity with other migrant communities with whom they will share many common experiences of the UK’s immigration system, and whose own rights also deserve protection and our attention.   

If you or someone you know is struggling with understanding and accessing rights under the Ukraine Schemes, get in touch. To support our charity, please consider making a donation. 

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