The Home Office is expected to ease the rules for Ukrainians wanting to seek refuge in the UK after a minister provoked outrage by saying that people fleeing the war might be able to benefit from a visa scheme for fruit pickers.
In an interview on Sunday morning, the foreign secretary, Liz Truss, said the UK would be welcoming refugees from the conflict and that a further announcement would be coming “very shortly”.
Ministers have already announced minor changes to visa rules to help Ukrainians who are in the UK and unable to return home and people in Ukraine with British relatives.
But Labour says the government should be going much further, and the row escalated when Kevin Foster, the immigration minister, posted a message on Twitter on Saturday night saying there were “a number of routes, not least our seasonal worker scheme” for Ukrainians wanting visas to visit the UK.
Foster subsequently deleted his tweet, but David Lammy, the shadow foreign secretary, said it was “totally unacceptable” and that the government should be much more hospitable to Ukrainian refugees.
Lammy said it was “immoral” to be imposing bureaucracy and red tape on people who were fleeing war.
“People are fleeing with their children in their arms,” he said. “Why would you ask people how rich they are to enter our country? Of course, there are some people who may not have family ties, but want to come into this country.
“We should have a scheme and a process similar to the scheme that we had after the Balkans. That’s as generous as the schemes that we’ve had in the past, when we allowed people to flee Idi Amin from Uganda, when we allowed people to flee Cyprus, when we allowed the Vietnamese boat people to enter our country.
“That’s the sort of generosity that the British people expect. Frankly, suggesting that people should use this scheme that effectively fruit pickers come to this country on is totally, totally unacceptable.”
Although the government is expected to ease visa restrictions for Ukrainians, people still in Ukraine who do not have British relatives are unable to make a visa application from that country. Ireland has dropped its requirement for Ukrainians to have a visa before they enter the country, although refugees will be expected to get permission to be in the country after their arrival.
The Guardian spoke to the UK resident Nataliya Rumyantseva, the daughter of 69-year-old Valentyna Klymova who escaped from Kharkiv where fighting is under way and who has been denied entry to the UK.
Klymova escaped to Hungary from where she took a flight to Paris – under European Schengen rules, visa-free travel between countries is permitted for several months. From there she was hoping to fly to the UK to join her daughter, an academic who works in London and has indefinite leave to remain. But UK Border Force officials rejected the travel request and wrote on a form “no entry clearance”.
“The Border Force official was quite defensive,” Rumyantseva told the Guardian. “She said: ‘I can’t just allow her to come into the UK.’ She said that my mother could claim asylum in France. But she doesn’t speak the language and I want her to be with me for now.”
The official said Klymova could go to the British embassy in Paris on Monday and apply for a visa to visit the UK. However, those applying for a visit visa have to give an undertaking to return home after six months and at the moment, with the uncertainty of the situation in Ukraine, the Home Office could refuse to grant this kind of visa.
The only visa option currently available for Klymova is a standard visit visa. The family’s lawyers submitted an application for this visa on Sunday.
The family has been told that a fast-track, next working day visa costs €1,312, excluding the €120 appointment fee. A five-day processing visa costs €394 along with the €120 appointment fee. Klymova does not qualify for the fee waiver announced by the Home Office because, although her daughter is resident in the UK, she is not a British citizen.
Enver Solomon, the head of the Refugee Council, said: “We urgently need the government to announce a clear plan which immediately relaxes visa requirements to allow family members of Ukrainians in the UK to join them here.
“We must uphold our tradition of supporting people fleeing war and persecution by sending a clear signal to Ukrainian families that they are welcome in the UK.”