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by Kirsteen Paterson
28 March 2022
Ukraine visa system is not 'programmed to fail', Minister for Refugees insists

Millions of civilians have had to flee their homes

Ukraine visa system is not 'programmed to fail', Minister for Refugees insists

Peers push for answers over entry numbers

The UK's Minister for Refugees denied the visa system for Ukrainians is "programmed to fail" as he came under pressure over entry numbers.

However, Lord Richard Harrington admitted there are "problems" with the online application portal under questioning by peers.

Harrington failed four times to tell members of the House of Lords how many people have come to the UK under the government's Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Ministers have speculated that this route, which opened on 14 March, could be used by hundreds of thousands of people.

Today, Harrington confirmed 20,000 people have applied - but failed to say how many people have now entered the via the scheme, which has no upper limit on numbers.

He would only tell members that further information will be released "in due course".

Crossbench peer Baroness Ilona Finlay, who was granted an urgent question on the matter, called the situation "extremely worrying".

She said: "We have an ethical obligation of non-abandonment, having given a commitment to stand with Ukraine and to offer sanctuary. Does the government recognise that the visa process is causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians who've experienced cumulative losses, pervasive basic existential terror and mass bereavements and are now increasingly at risk? 

"The process is also increasingly frustrating to the tens of thousands of Britons who want to welcome them into their homes and will provide a long-term commitment."

Harrington, who was appointed to the role just 20 days ago, also told peers he "cannot at the moment" say how many visa applications have been successfully submitted.

Facing sustained criticism of the visa requirement, he said the system provides "security checks for this country" and hailed the development of online application processes. 

However, he said he and Home Secretary Priti Patel "have spent hours at the weekend with officials looking at ways that we can speed this up". 

Harrington called this an "urgent top priority", telling the House: "There's no reason why people applying on the internet or in the visa centre in the countries adjacent to the Ukraine shouldn't be able to get a response really quickly to allow them to come here."

The House also heard about problems accessing visa centres and using the online forms due to language and connectivity issues.

Baroness Sheehan told how she is "really struggling" to assist a family of three generations of women and children, saying: "The internet keeps failing; each time they have to start from the beginning as the page has not saved, and that process has to be done for each and every person.

"Why is there no-one on the ground from the Home Office to help them? Honestly, it looks as though the Home Office has designed a system that's programmed to fail."

Defending the system, Harrington said: "It's not, but there are problems with it."

Lord Daffyd Wigley said he had heard from a Ukrainian refugee who was turned away from a UK visa centre in an unnamed central European country because "they didn't deal with them on Mondays, only on Wednesdays".

Harrington said: "That's unacceptable and there is no visa centre to my knowledge that would say that. 

"We've broken such things as the European Working Hours Directive, with permissions of government, to get embassies like Warsaw open seven days a week and it's certainly not our intention to stop people with excuses like that."

On the issue of security, crossbencher Lord John Kerr said: "I find it very hard to see these desperate destitute Ukrainian mothers and children as plausible security risks compared to, say, Russian oligarchs with strong KGB/FSB connections."

Harrington replied: "I don't think you could compare oligarchs who are not allowed here to refugees who are and we want to expedite them coming here as quickly as possible."

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