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Latest 09 March 2022

We asked the experts: UK refugee laws are inadequate, and they’re about to get worse

Like many, we have watched in horror at the tragedy unfolding in Ukraine and the increasing numbers of people fleeing to safety. The UN refugee agency estimates that two million Ukrainians have already fled beyond its borders and it expects that number to rise as high as four million. Most will shelter in Ukraine’s nearest neighbours. Others will find safety elsewhere in the EU. While only a small proportion will seek asylum in the UK, we have a moral duty to provide whatever help we can.

We want the debate about the treatment of asylum seekers in the UK, from Ukraine and elsewhere, to be informed by the reality of what the law is.

To help do this, we have asked a group of expert immigration lawyers to provide independent advice on how Ukrainians can legally reach the UK to seek asylum. We have also asked them to explain how the new Nationality and Borders Bill will impact the few legal routes that do now exist.

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The UK’s approach to refugees has long been inadequate. Legal routes to the UK are heavily restricted and only a tiny number of visas have been granted after many thousands of applications by Ukrainians in need.

Even more alarming, the Nationality and Borders Bill, currently making its way through Parliament, will further and dramatically limit the possibility of Ukrainians finding a safe, legal route to the UK.

We are now publishing a Joint Opinion, produced by Raza Husain QC, Alasdair Mackenzie and Sarah Dobbie, instructed by Leigh Day Solicitors.

The Joint Opinion sets out the following conclusions in relation to the legal routes Ukrainian refugees can claim asylum in the UK.

  • A valid visa is required to enter the UK legally and asylum can only be claimed while already inside the country.
  • There are no specific ‘refugee’ or ‘humanitarian’ visas which Ukrainians can use as a basis for entering the country in order to claim asylum. Refugees must rely on other visa schemes which each have their own requirements.
  • Ukrainians can apply for a visa to join family members who are already in the UK. The Government has amended the usual rules to allow a wider range of extended families members to benefit from this scheme.
  • Ukrainians without family members in the UK have to rely on ‘normal’ visas, typically used to visit, study or work in the UK. This includes the Seasonal Worker Visa, typically used by fruit pickers, and the Standard Visitor Visa, which covers tourism, study and other activities. The Government has announced plans for a new Local Sponsorship Scheme, but details have yet to be made public.
  • Ukrainians seeking asylum run the risk of being held in immigration detention, will likely have to survive on limited ‘asylum support’ benefits, and face huge delays while their applications progress through a mammoth backlog.
  • The UK’s approach contrasts with the EU, which is giving Ukrainians the right to live, work, access healthcare, housing and education immediately in any of its member states without having to go through an asylum application process.

The Joint Opinion also sets out the impact the Nationality and Borders Bill would have on prospective Ukrainian refugees.

  • The new Bill would criminalise anyone arriving in the UK without a visa, including refugees, and contains expanded powers to push back boats hoping to reach the UK.
  • It extends the powers of the Home Secretary to declare asylum applications to be inadmissible on the basis that someone could have sought refuge elsewhere. For Ukrainians, who will find it almost impossible to travel directly to the UK, this would include any countries they’ve travelled through.
  • The Bill “flagrantly violates the UK’s obligations under international refugee law, international human rights law, and is inconsistent with the common law.”

We encourage you to read the full legal advice here.

Good Law Project will continue to look for ways in which we can do more in response to the crisis in Ukraine, including through providing financial support to the charity Asylum Aid.

Good Law Project only exists thanks to donations from people across the UK. If you’re in a position to support our work, you can do so here.