Today marks three weeks since Russian forces invaded Ukraine. The numbers of refugees are continuing to rise as people flee the fighting, with the UN reporting that over 3 million have now left the country. Many have sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries with over half going to Poland.
As the invasion continues, some refugees will seek sanctuary in the UK and Wales. This article summarises the UK Government’s response to the growing number of refugees fleeing Ukraine and the Welsh Government’s plans to help welcome refugees to Wales. It builds on our previous article which sets out the initial response of the UK and Welsh governments.
UK support for refugees
In the days following the invasion, Ukrainian refugees wanting to come to the UK had to satisfy the conditions of the points-based immigration route, albeit language requirements and salary thresholds were lowered so more people could be supported.
The UK Government has faced continued criticism about its handling of the humanitarian crisis. The UK Government defended its position by stressing the need for biometric testing to “keep British citizens safe” and promised greater capacity at visa processing centres.
However, images of refugees gathered in Calais unable to get a visa to come to the UK, and continued calls for visas to be waived, prompted the UK Government to announce further immigration concessions including changes to the visa process and support packages.
From 15 March, refugees with a passport no longer have to attend a visa application centre in person and can complete the process online. Refugees won’t have to provide biometric data before entering the UK and will be able to do this after they arrive.
People fleeing the conflict can still apply to visit, work or study through existing immigration routes.
Local Sponsorship Scheme for Ukraine
For those without family ties, the UK Government has introduced a sponsorship scheme. Sponsors (which can be community groups, local authorities and individuals) will be matched to refugees. People wanting to sponsor a refugee individual or family who don’t personally know anyone fleeing the Ukraine could register their interest from 14 March.
Those who wish to come to the UK via this route can apply from 18 March. Ukrainians arriving in the UK under this scheme can stay for three years, and will be entitled to work, and access benefits and public services.
This scheme is led by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. The Secretary of State, Michael Gove, said:
Homes for Ukraine will initially facilitate sponsorship between people with known connections, but we will rapidly expand the scheme in a phased way, with charities, churches and community groups, to ensure that many more prospective sponsors can be matched with Ukrainians who need help. We are of course also working closely with the devolved Administrations to make sure that their kind offers of help are mobilised.
There are some concerns. The Refugee Council said
We are also worried about ensuring the safety and wellbeing for Ukrainians who have fled bloodshed, and the level of support available for their sponsors. We are talking about very traumatised women and children whose experiences are unique, and the level of support needs to match that. It’s like asking people to be foster carers without any robust checks, training or having a social worker in place to support them.
Wales to be a ‘super sponsor’
As set out in our previous article on the conflict, the Welsh Government and Members of the Senedd have expressed strong support for Ukraine and those fleeing the conflict. In a Senedd debate on 9 March Members across political parties expressed their support for taking further action to help those who want to come to Wales. The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew RT Davies, said
… the Welsh Conservatives want to see greater flexibility in the system to make sure that we can welcome as many refugees as possible to this country.
On 13 March the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon, wrote to the Secretary of State saying that both governments want to support the humanitarian sponsorship scheme by becoming ‘super sponsors’.
This would see the Welsh Government support an initial 1000 refugees and work with partners to take “forward the provision of accommodation, safeguarding and access to services as they have done successfully to support refugees in the past”.
The letter stressed the Welsh Government would need to have access to the digital portal so it can assume responsibility for matching refugees to accommodation. The First Ministers were also concerned about the “suitability and scalability of the sponsorship model” and called on the UK Government to do more around safeguarding and the matching process. They said:
… the Scottish and Welsh Governments do not think the humanitarian sponsorship scheme goes far enough and raises some serious questions which have not yet been answered.
In a written statement on 15 March, the Welsh First Minister stressed that the Welsh Government is “committed to building on this and to taking our fair and proportionate share of the Ukrainian refugees who come to the UK”.
In response to the Welsh Government’s offer, a spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said:
We will continue to work with the devolved governments in the organisation of this scheme and see how best it can continue to be delivered.
The situation is changing rapidly and new announcements and policy changes are likely to occur over the coming days and weeks. Regular updates can be found on the UK Government immigration website page.
Article by Claire Thomas, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament