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LONDON — As Vladimir Putin wages war against Ukraine, unresolved internal problems at the U.K.’s Home Office have led to a chaotic offer for refugees.
The government has faced sustained criticism — including from many on its own side — because of the scramble to issue visas to Ukrainian refugees since the Russian invasion started two weeks ago.
Despite U.K. intelligence disclosures pointing to the possibility of a large-scale Russian attack many weeks before troops crossed the border, the U.K. Home Office appeared surprised by the invasion and had no Ukrainian refugee scheme ready to launch. As a result, the U.K. initially only accepted visa applications from those with immediate relatives in Britain.
Since then, the government has made a number of U-turns and last-minute announcements to allow more Ukrainians to come to Britain, particularly after many drew unfavorable comparisons with the European Union which has given Ukrainians the right to settle in the bloc for three years without a visa.
The most recent of these policy shifts saw Housing Secretary Michael Gove announce Sunday that Brits would be offered £350 a month to host refugees from Ukraine in their homes. So far, “more than 3,000 visas” have been issued, he said. The U.N. Refugee Agency estimates 2.7 million have left Ukraine since Russia invaded.
“The U.K. has been unable, both from a practical point of view but also from a political point of view, to do anything near [the EU offer],” said Andy Hewett, head of advocacy at the charity Refugee Council. “The U.K. is way behind the curve in terms of its response.”
Long a source of frustration to successive British governments, Home Office slowness and bureaucracy is once again in the spotlight.
“We have got to start working at the pace that these events require,” former Tory minister Mark Harper told the House of Commons last week during a debate in which several other Conservatives vented frustration at the low number of visas issued to Ukrainian refugees.
Others contend that the department’s focus on security, strengthened after the Brexit referendum that brought a renewed political focus on immigration, has further hampered its ability to respond to a crisis.
“They’re slow, they’re risk averse, there is no obvious ministerial direction happening,” one former minister said. “If ministers are clearly saying security remains a priority, that any scheme has to be ‘all boxes ticked’ before it can be started, then you’re getting this wholly unacceptable delay.”
For its part, the government argues it has been working on the new visa schemes for weeks and has made a number of policy announcements allowing Britain to balance security risks while welcoming those fleeing war in Ukraine. It expects numbers to rise considerably in the coming weeks.
Security, security, security
Home Office officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, consistently pointed to security considerations as the overriding priority promoted by ministers — and one of the main reasons for Britain’s delayed response.
From Tuesday, refugees with Ukrainian passports will be able to apply to the Ukraine Family Scheme online and will not need to provide biometric data before arriving in the U.K. But as recently as last week, Downing Street and the Home Office said they were concerned Russian agents could try to enter the U.K. by claiming to be Ukrainian refugees. By Thursday, Home Secretary Priti Patel argued she had received assurances that allowed her to introduce these changes without putting Britain’s security at risk.
The widely welcomed U-turn followed fierce criticism from MPs on all sides who say they have been flooded by messages from constituents asking for help to bring relatives to the country or volunteering to host refugees. Even after the announcement, Prime Minister Boris Johnson doubled down on the need for security checks, arguing some of those fleeing Ukraine are “still armed, perhaps not all of their identities completely clear, their motivations completely clear — it is responsible to have checks.”
Yaroslav Taranenko, a Ukrainian supply chain manager living in the U.K. who is trying to bring his mother, sister and two young nephews, said the Home Office is applying this security argument “to a religious point.” His oldest nephew, aged seven, is an example of those who will not benefit from this change because he did not have a Ukrainian passport when he fled. His family waited for a visa in Prague since Tuesday after submitting biometric data and on Friday they were granted all but one.
Exposure to crime, atrocities and terrorism can foster a sense of mistrust among Home Office ministers and officials that is very difficult to shake, said Mohammed Hussien, a former special adviser who dealt with five terrorists attacks during his time at the department.
“The challenge is to make sure that you don’t become de-sensitized. Some things do need a lot more empathy and understanding,” he said.
The security argument was strengthened during the Brexit years, when the “Take back control” slogan of the Johnson’s Leave campaign explicitly focused on borders. Insiders said it’s difficult for such a big department to change direction in response to public opinion, especially without a clear instruction from its political leaders, who in this case supported Brexit.
The government has tried to convey a welcoming message, promising up to 200, 000 Ukrainians may be given sanctuary in the U.K. in the coming months. But the message was undermined by a tweet posted by Immigration Minister Kevin Foster on February 26 in which he wrote Ukrainians “can qualify” for a number of U.K. visa routes, including the seasonal worker scheme intended to provide labor for British farms.
While Ukrainians already make up a large proportion of those applying to that scheme, critics interpreted his message as a patronizing invitation to refugees to become fruit pickers. The tweet was promptly deleted but Foster refused to apologize, and now faces criticism from members of his own party who question his lack of political antenna and empathy.
Lack of resources
As the war unfolds, it is apparent the department is ill-equipped to meet the numbers of people wanting to come to Britain.
The Home Office has hired contractors to help, including at visa application centers in European capitals. They are also drafting in civil servants from across the civil service, including 75 from the U.K.’s customs department. British troops are being sent to help speed up visa processing for Ukrainian refugees in Poland, the capacity at visa application centers has been expanded to 13,000 a week, and a 24/7 helpline is now in place.
“We’re quite under resourced,” a Home Office official said. “You get moved and shunted from one side to the next to address the next challenge. That doesn’t allow too much time for thinking or coming up with a response that is appropriate.”
If anything, Brexit has made matters worse. Hewett of the Refugee Council said more funding is needed to clear “chronic backlogs” as the Home Office has had to cope with many more applications for asylum, nationality, work and student visas, the seasonal workers scheme, which expanded to cope with post-Brexit labor shortages, and the EU Settlement Scheme for Europeans wanting to stay in Britain after Brexit.
The Ukrainian crisis hit the Home Office just as it was developing other schemes, including the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS), the Syrian Resettlement Programme, and the British National (Overseas) visa route designed to offer a path to citizenship for Hong Kongers.
“They do struggle with agility,” Hussien agreed. “There’s also an element of institutionalization in the Home Office: ‘this is always the way we’ve done something, we have a process in place, why would we change it?’ There is not really this ability to read the room.”
In such an enormous and operational department, ministers’ messages do not always filter down to the agencies and officials dealing with migrants and refugees on the ground, he said. Ministers also complain they receive inaccurate information from officials.
How to fix the mess
Last week, Johnson drafted in Richard Harrington as a minister for refugees, and had him report to the Housing Department as well as to the Home Office. The former MP, who was made a member of the House of Lords so that he could join Johnson’s government, brings experience of having worked on the Syrian resettlement scheme. Some Tory backbenches such as Roger Gale are calling for more — first of all, firing Patel.
Robert Goodwill, a former Conservative immigration minister in Theresa May’s government, said he hopes the Home Office will be able to make savings by reducing the numbers of undocumented migrants crossing the English channel. On this, he’s aligned with Patel, who insists the National and Borders Bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, will give the government extra powers to crack down on this issue.
“My biggest frustration as an immigration minister was that the people you want to help can often be difficult to help, and the system is gummed up with people who are not genuinely asylum seekers but merely economic migrants,” Goodwill said. “The people who arrive through the people trafficking route are the most expensive people to deal with because we have to house them in temporary accommodation, often in hotels, we process their claim, reject them and then they go to judicial review.”
Structural fixes are also being floated. Some support creating a separate government department for nationality, borders and immigration, arguing this would remove the tension with security and policing priorities. Less drastic solutions include creating a “rapid response unit” or, as Goodwill proposed, allowing the immigration minister to attend Cabinet alongside the home secretary.
The fact that the U.K. does not share a land border with Ukraine means Britain “does not need to be in the first cohort of countries offering immediate assistance” and can focus on securing it’s got the logistics right to accommodate and support refugees as they arrive, Goodwill said.
“We will take our fair share of people,” he said. “When we look back in six months’ time I’m sure the U.K. will be proud of what it’s done.”
A government spokesperson said the U.K. stands “shoulder to shoulder” with Ukrainians. “All the measures we’ve put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners. We will keep our support under constant review.”
Many at home are wondering if that will be enough.