Some MPs were in tears yesterday when President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the House of Commons, and understandably so, given the soaring rhetoric and bravery of a man who knows his days on earth could be numbered.
But across Westminster over the past few days, MPs and their constituency teams have also been crying tears of frustration at the Home Office’s handling of the visa application process. Not only has there been intense confusion between the different arms of government about how many routes there are for refugees – with Home Secretary Priti Patel claiming she was creating a third one, only for No. 10 and other ministerial colleagues to insist there were only two routes and that wasn’t changing. Then there is the problem with the visa application centres: on Monday Patel said one had been set up en route to Calais, which turned out not to be true, with refugees still being told to go to Brussels or Paris. ‘En route’ could be Lille, more than 70 miles from Calais, where a new centre is being set up (although the Eurostar stops at Lille).
There has also been a bizarre inflexibility on the part of the Home Office when it comes to the existing routes. Constituency caseworkers for MPs tell me refugees have been asked for documents, which people fleeing a war zone would never think to carry with them. Others have been surprised when asked to post documents to an office in Wandsworth. The system doesn’t seem even to be able to cope with the internet going down mid-application, which is hardly uncommon in a war zone, and perhaps still more frustratingly there are cases where the system itself has crashed. ‘I actually told someone today to stop telling me the computer says no,’ complains one.
One kind interpretation is that the caseworkers at the Home Office haven’t been trained sufficiently for them to use the initiative when it comes to people fleeing for their lives from a war zone. Others are relieved that the community sponsorship route is now being managed by another ministry: Michael Gove’s Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Department, with a new minister, Richard Harrington, working between Home Office and Gove’s department to try to improve things.
The government has struggled to work out what its overall policy on Ukrainian refugees is. Does it want to help as many as possible to come here, or does it want to help the countries closest to Ukraine support people before – or if ever – they are able to return home? Given the UK cannot grant a no-fly zone, and given any additional support may have to be deniable (and therefore not the sort of thing ministers brief to newspapers), it might be wise to take some time to work out what the policy on refugees really is, who is in charge, and how it is going to be implemented properly.
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