Yvette Cooper has urged the government to bring in the armed forces to ensure that Ukrainian refugees are processed as rapidly as possible and slammed the current system as a “total, total disgrace”.
Home Secretary Priti Patel announced today that from Tuesday some Ukrainian refugees seeking to enter the UK will be able to complete the process entirely online, with biometric checks undertaken once people have reached the UK.
Cooper responded by welcoming the decision to move the process entirely online – though this will only apply to Ukrainians with passports, not those with ID cards – but pressed the minister on acting more quickly.
“Why is she not bringing in the armed forces? They’ve offered to help,” the Shadow Home Secretary said. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has repeatedly said the Ministry of Defence can assist the Home Office.
Cooper also asked Patel to clarify whether the scheme would still only be open to families and whether the process would continue to require refugees to fill in a significant number of forms.
The Labour frontbencher asked: “Why does it always take being hauled into the House of Commons to make basic changes to help vulnerable people who are fleeing from the Ukraine?”
Labour has proposed a policy on routes for Ukrainian refugees that would require a system of basic biometric and security checks, but the party has not endorsed the idea of waiving visa restrictions all together.
Ed Miliband told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that there is “no evidence” to suggest that a process involving basic checks cannot be done “quickly and speedily” by the UK with the “proper resources”.
“We’ve looked into this in great detail,” the Labour frontbencher said. “It can absolutely be done, but the government needs to get on with it and get its act together.”
Cooper also outlined Labour’s position on Ukrainian refugees on Today on Wednesday. She urged the government to grant refugees fleeing the conflict emergency visas requiring minimal paperwork, stressing the “shockingly low and painfully slow” volume and pace of processing under the current system.
She called on ministers to “offer emergency visas that can be issued really swiftly, rather than people having to fill in these 14-page forms” and accused the government of effectively “picking and choosing between families”.
The Ukraine family visa scheme allows people fleeing the conflict to join relatives in the UK. Refugees are currently required to apply online before booking an appointment at a visa application centre to submit biometric data. Centres in Ukraine have been closed due to the war, and applicants have been forced to travel across Europe.
The Home Office established a ‘pop-up’ centre in Rzeszow, Poland, where it claims there are more than 3,000 appointments available per week. More than 22,000 people have applied, but just 760 visas had been granted as of Wednesday.
“It just beggars belief that people are being asked to do this when they have fled a war zone, when they have had to leave everything behind, when they have been risking life and limb, in the face of Russian bombardment,” Cooper said.
The Labour leadership has resisted calls from within the party to follow the EU in dropping the requirement for Ukrainian refugees to get a visa to enter the UK.
Labour MP Nadia Whittome argued in an article for LabourList that the UK should waive visa requirements and allow all refugees who wish to come to the UK to travel and remain here.
“There is still time to act. Let’s waive visas now, work with our European partners to establish safe and legal routes, and reject the nationality and borders bill once and for all,” she wrote.