UK 'prioritises' paperwork over plight of Ukraine refugees

Refugee agency chief: Ukraine is 'worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War'

The Ukrainian flag flies outside Lille Town Hall, where the UK government is sending Ukrainian refugees applying to enter Britain. Getty
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The UK’s Ukrainian refugee system has been criticised as too slow and too stringent as applicants are ferried between sites in France.

Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, said the government was giving priority to “paperwork over people” in its response to the Ukraine refugee crisis. The UK is unique in Europe in requiring Ukrainians obtain a visa before entering the country as they flee the attack on their country.

The UK’s policy to allow in refugees only if they have families in the UK has also come under fire from EU nations that have adopted more "open door" policies.

More than 2,500 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Ireland, a third of them children. Poland, which shares a border with Ukraine, has taken in 1.29 million people.

Mr Solomon said it was the “worst refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War “.

“We have a scheme in place that's only issued hundreds of visas to allow Ukrainians to come here,” he said.

“We have Ukrainians queuing up in Calais, at the visa application centre in Poland, unable to access documentation.

“And I think the government is making a fundamental error here. It's not adopting a 'refugees first' approach, which it should be adopting

"It seems to be adopting an approach which is 'paperwork over people' — people who have lost everything through no fault of their own.”

In Europe, refugees have been given free travel by rail companies in Poland, Germany and elsewhere to help them move around the continent.

There were chaotic scenes in Calais on Wednesday as refugees tried to gain the right papers for entry into Britain.

They were put on a bus, accompanied by a heavy police presence, bound for visa application centres in Paris, Brussels or Lille.

A new “pop-up” facility is being opened in Lille, about 110 kilometres to the east of Calais, on Thursday amid concern among politicians that smuggling gangs are exploiting people in an area long associated with the migrant crisis.

“I don't know what is happening day to day," said Omed Tahri, who had lived in Ukraine for 14 years. "It is very complicated for me.”

Mr Tahri, a translator who fled his home in Kharkiv to join his sister in East Ham, east London, was among those due to leave a hostel bound for Paris, having been told he had an appointment on Thursday morning.

“We had a good job, a good business, now we have left everything," said the Afghan national, who is travelling with several members of his family.

“Now I have no money, no place to go. I hope they give us the visa … we want to be a unit, all the family together.”

The UK has for days been accused of dragging its heels over the refugee crisis.

“The problem here is there is a lot of confusion and uncertainty," said Clare Moseley, founder of the Care4Calais charity. "It is making the lives of upset people even more difficult.”

Adding to the confusion, the UK Home Office said the Lille visa centre's location would not be made public, prompting further concern about how refugees arriving in the French city would know where to go.

Downing Street said the Lille facility would open on Thursday.

“The equipment and facilities are being stood up today,” a government spokesman said. “It will start accepting appointments from tomorrow morning.”

Updated: March 10, 2022, 7:54 AM
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