In a February 2023 article, Kyiv Post reported on the UK government’s response to a House of Commons petition asking for Ukrainians to have the right to settle long-term in the UK. That petition followed the delivery of two pioneering schemes to welcome Ukrainians to Britain – the Homes for Ukraine scheme and the Ukraine Family Scheme – both involving the issue of three-year temporary residence permits. A third scheme has allowed Ukrainians on existing visas in the UK to extend for the same period.
To be clear, these schemes – whilst far from perfect – have been a lifeline for over 135,000 (and counting) Ukrainian war refugees entering Britain. And with a number that high, there are similarly thousands of unique personal circumstances. My wife is one of those 135,000. I’m a British citizen and had been living and working in Ukraine prior to Russia’s full-scale invasion, so was fortunate that we could both go to the UK where we both now live with our baby daughter.
The Home Office response to the above-mentioned petition was pretty unequivocal: “The Ukraine schemes are not a route for permanent relocation to the UK but instead allow for temporary protection until they can return home to rebuild Ukraine.” Let me be frank – the wording could have been better and rather assumes that it’s just that easy. For example, many of those on the Homes for Ukraine scheme will be women and children whose partners are still in Ukraine and who will want to return as soon as possible. That’s one set of circumstances but that doesn’t apply to everyone. Some are single, some will have separated and those on the Ukraine Family Scheme may have close ties already to Brits.
The petition response added: “While we keep any future need for an extension of protection in the UK under review and in line with developments of the situation in Ukraine, we firmly believe that Ukraine will be safe again.” We all hope that will be the case and of course it’s vital that Ukraine rebuilds its economy and society. But whilst one would almost certainly expect temporary residence permits to be extended if the war were to (heaven forbid) drag on into 2025, there seems to be this pervading assumption that every Ukrainian will be in a position to up sticks and jet back home as soon as the skies re-open.
To illustrate my point, a quick browse through the Home for Ukraine – Guidance for Guests – reveals topics such as renting private accommodation, opening bank accounts, finding work, paying taxes, and accessing childcare, education, health services and certain benefits. In other words, Ukrainians in Britain are welcomed with open arms to integrate into the fabric of almost every aspect of UK life.
With these issues in mind, I wrote to my local Member of Parliament (MP) Rishi Sunak, to try to get a sense of what Ukrainians’ future options might be. Mr. Sunak duly responded in writing, emphasizing the UK’s fervent support for Ukraine in the face of what he termed a “barbaric and devastating Russian attack,” whilst also reiterating the temporary intended nature of protection measures. He also passed my concern to the minister of state for immigration, particularly as that related to our personal family circumstances.
In a subsequent written response to me, the immigration minister offered the following advice: “It is worth noting that family members of people living in the UK are able to apply for other types of leave,” that every application is considered “on a case-by-case basis” and that “caseworkers can take compassionate and compelling reasons into account.” In short, there is always the option for Ukrainians to apply to another standard visa route when the time comes, and should they want or need to.
On the one hand, this sounds like a fair option. But it’s important to bear in mind that existing visa routes have rules and eligibility criteria which not all Ukrainians – remember that figure of 135,000? – may be able to meet. And where there are complex rules, people risk falling into the cracks.
For instance, the Family Visa route (for those married or in long-term relationships with UK-based partners) currently requires them to show a minimum gross annual income of £18,600 ($23,700). If the applicant has children, an additional £3,800 ($4,800) per year is needed for the first child and a further £2,400 ($3,100) for each subsequent child. There is also the visa application fee, which presently comes in at £1,048 ($1,300) if applying from inside the UK. Work-based visas are potentially even trickier to navigate, since – in the wake of the UK’s exit from the EU – the government has tightened up the types of jobs and skills for overseas workers to qualify.
“Certainty and stability”
Returning for a moment to the immigration minister’s letter, there was reference to providing Ukrainians with “certainty and stability while they are [in the UK].” That, to me, represents a paradox, i.e. “certainty and stability” with a three-year time limit can at best only turn into “uncertainty and instability” without a clear future pathway in place for those who need it.
The counter arguments to offering Ukrainians long-term settlement in the UK should also be mentioned here, which are evident from various comments on social media. These include the fact that Ukrainians should be grateful for what limited protection they are offered; should consider returning home as soon as possible to support the country’s recover; and that the UK government cannot simply expect the thousands of volunteers registered under the Homes for Ukraine scheme to keep their doors open indefinitely. All valid points. But for those becoming fully integrated in UK life, there has to be a way of ensuring people aren’t left to fall into the cracks.
A June 2023 update from the UK government Department for Housing, Levelling Up and Communities proudly referred to “almost half of working-age [Ukrainian] nationals now in employment and settled into their local areas, having had the right to work, receive benefits and access public services from day one.” The update also talks about the importance of “long-term suitable accommodation.”
This is all very true. Three years means people set down roots and develop ties. Ukrainians are now in jobs, have started businesses and their children are in UK schools, colleges and universities. Some will have forged new relationships and got married. Some may have complex healthcare needs and could be receiving treatment.
So, when it comes to the blanket argument that, after three years, Ukrainians should simply be ready to return home – sorry but I don’t accept it. When it comes to a rug being laid out for Ukrainians with one hand, whilst another is discretely positioned to pull it out from under them a bit further down the line – sorry but I don’t accept that either.
Addressing the elephant in the room
In its Aug 2 article More than 100,000 Ukrainians face being kicked out of Britain, British newspaper The Telegraph revealed that the issue of Ukrainians’ long-term certainty in the UK is now – finally – starting to be discussed in government circles. It reports that Sir Robert Buckland, former justice secretary under Boris Johnson, said Ukrainians need “as much certainty and stability as possible,” that ministers should consider granting Ukrainians a more permanent status, and that the current “bespoke” offer devised for a “particularly urgent and unprecedented situation” requires a “further bespoke response”.
The article also quotes Bob Seely, fellow Conservative party MP and co-chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Ukraine, who praised the government for supporting Ukrainian families, but also called for “important” clarity. Several charities working with refugees have also lent their voices to the same cause.
The UK government clearly has a balancing act to perform. A general election is earmarked for May 2024 and the present Conservative government is trailing in the polls. On the one hand, there has been a fantastic and overwhelming show of support among Britons for Ukrainian nationals, with yellow and blue flags continuing to fly over government buildings, castles, shopping centers and outside the windows of houses across the country. On the other hand, since 52 percent of Britons voted to leave the UK in 2016, the government has been under pressure to focus on some of the big issues behind that vote, including widespread concerns about spiraling net migration and the strain on resources for what is effectively an increasingly densely populated small island.
Given all these complexities, it perhaps stands to reason why the incumbent government is going just about far enough, but not wanting to be too “all-committing” to Ukrainians until it absolutely has to. Time, however, is ticking. Options for longer-term certainty and stability (be it an extension to current permits, a dedicated settlement scheme or something else) need to be extended to all those who need it. That won’t be everyone as many Ukrainians want to return safely home. But for others, stronger assurances wouldn’t go amiss and the issue can’t keep being kicked into the long grass.
Whatever happens next – and note that these issues are absolutely not just limited to the UK – it seems like conversations are at least starting to happen.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.
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