The war in Ukraine is the biggest humanitarian crisis since WWII. It's time the UK offers a humanitarian response

By Olivia Vicol, Emma McClelland - 08 March 2022

In the immediate aftermath of tragedy - the first few frozen minutes, the hours that pass like seconds - there is little room for reflection. On 24th February 2022, as Russian military forces launched a devastating attack on Ukraine, individuals, organisations and governments around the world mobilised to prioritise and tackle the most urgent humanitarian challenges. 

As a collective response, it has been incredible and humbling. But there is value in pausing to reflect on what has happened - and what is yet to come. We should take hope from the humanity shown across civil society. But as the number of refugees swells, we must also speak candidly about areas in which our government is yet to step up to the challenge. We're in the middle of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. The UK government needs a humanitarian response.

The response of civil society

As an organisation, we have had to react quickly to the rapidly changing situation. In the ten days that passed since the war began, we've heard from dozens of people who were worried. This included seasonal agricultural workers, HGV drivers, and Ukrainians all across the UK who were concerned about family abroad, and desperately trying to make sense of the UK government's response.

We're incredibly grateful to our frontline advisers for their enormous commitment and focus. They have anticipated issues, monitored and highlighted changes in the UK government's response, produced easy-access contact forms for Ukrainians who need help, and gone above and beyond to support the people who reached out.  

We're also grateful for the hundreds of people who volunteered to support Ukrainian refugees. In the UK, more than 300 lawyers and barristers stepped up to support Ukrainains with free legal advice, as part of what is now the Ukraine Advice Project. Across the region, established organisations and grassroots groups organised to help refugees evacuate, provide shelter, food, and medical supplies. At this stage, donating to one of these organisations is the most beneficial way to help. We hope the UK government learns from this humanity too.

The response from the government 

Though we're facing a humanitarian crisis like never before, the UK government has offered a visa-based approach clad in red-tape. The Ukraine Family Visa hastily introduced on 04 March excludes the family of seasonal workers, students, visitors, and Ukrainians who are in the UK under the points-based system. Even in the cases where people are eligible to sponsor a relative, the scheme excludes Ukrainian aunts, uncles, cousins, and a whole range of family units - leaving it to immigration advisers to determine whether they could push at the criteria or not.

Then there is the sheer administrative nightmare of making applications in practice. There were reports of website failures, cumbersome requests for proof of family relationship, and overwhelmed Visa Application Centres (VACs) where people would have to queue for hours to have provide their biometric details. Yesterday, our colleague Andrei Savitski was supporting a woman who was sheltering in a basement to prepare her documentation. "I fled a war! I brought a baby, not a printer!" she noted, exasperated. 

We need a humanitarian regime

According to the UNHCR, more than 1.7m Ukrainian refugees have crossed into neighbouring countries in 10 days. This is the fastest growing refugee crisis since WWII. In the four days since the Ukraine Family Visa was instituted, a mere 300 visas were issued. That's less than a drop in the ocean. It's a slap in the face of refugees, their families who work in the UK, and the thousands of people across civil society who are striving to rise up to the scale of this crisis.

We need a comprehensive humanitarian response that matches the scale of the crisis. Across the channel, the EU introduced a humanitarian protection scheme that allows Ukrainian refugees to live, work, and claim public funds in the member states for up to three years, without the cumbersome application for asylum. It's time the UK follows suit. The Family Visa Scheme is not fit for purpose. A so-called community sponsorship scheme announced on 01 March is not even in operation, giving false hope to people in the UK and Ukrainian refugees alike.



We are doing everything we can to advocate for a humanitarian system, and to support Ukrainians in the UK. As one of the few charities with a Ukrainian-Russian speaker, our phones have been ringing off the hook with calls from people desperate for visa and asylum advice in response to the war in Ukraine. If you can, please help us keep answering those phone calls by making a donation today. 

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