More than half of UK voters think Boris Johnson’s government should ditch visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees to allow unlimited numbers to seek sanctuary here, a new poll for The Independent has found.
Just one in five (21 per cent) said the government should stick to its requirement for visas for those fleeing Vladimir Putin’s invasion, compared to 54 per cent who said the policy should be dropped.
Charities have warned that the visa process for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which seeks to match refugees with British sponsors who have spare rooms, was proving much too “slow and bureaucratic”.
Lawyers also said long delays getting visas under the family scheme meant some refugees were close to running out of money and becoming increasingly vulnerable to traffickers.
The Savanta ComRes poll found that the government’s policy on refugees was souring public opinion on Mr Johnson’s response to the Ukraine war.
Unlike EU nations which have opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees for up to three years, the UK is insisting on visas for all those taking part in schemes to come to Britain.
The poll found strong support for Mr Johnson’s overall approach to the war, with 53 per cent of those asked saying he had done a good job, against 35 per cent who said he had not.
But on the welcome the government has offered to Ukrainian refugees, the picture was reversed, with 47 per cent saying Mr Johnson had done a bad job; just 42 per cent said he had done well.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan said on Saturday that the government should be making it “far, far easier for those who are fleeing Ukraine to come here”.
Speaking at a march in support of Ukraine, Mr Khan said: “You compare our government’s actions versus the actions of Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Poland, it’s embarrassing – we’ve got be doing much more.”
A small number of successful “matchups” via the Homes for Ukraine scheme have emerged since Friday. But the levelling up department has yet to reveal how many refugees have been able to join sponsors in the UK.
The Ukraine Advice Project, a group of hundreds of volunteer lawyers helping both sponsors and refugees, said they had not seen a single Ukrainian able to get to the UK under the scheme.
One solicitor told The Independent the sponsorship form had not been translated into Ukrainian until Thursday, while refugees have also struggled with the requirement to convert forms into PDF format.
Refugee Council chief executive Enver Solomon said: “It’s been so slow and bureaucratic. It looks like there’s going to be significant delays before we get many visas granted by this route. It’s going to be very slow.”
The charity chief added: “The visa application is a real barrier – we should be waiving the complicated requirements, or setting up a humanitarian scheme that allows people to come here quickly through one simple form.”
The Refugee Council is one of 16 charities and anti-trafficking organisations to have written to levelling up secretary Michael Gove warning that the sponsorship scheme remains open to abuse and risks becoming “Tinder for sex traffickers”.
They called for leading charities to be accredited to help in the matching process to help ease concerns about the flood of amateur Facebook pages which could leave the process open to abuse.
Meanwhile, lawyers said that refugees who have relatives in Britain and are still waiting to come under the family visa route are being asked for unnecessary documents and told to send passports across the continent.
Nearly half of the 35,500 Ukrainians who have applied to the scheme launched on 4 March are still waiting for a decision.
Labour’s shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said problems with visa processes were “shameful”, while the Liberal Democrats home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said that“Ukrainians are being left stranded in purgatory by a visa scheme in shambles”.
Jennifer Blair, a barrister volunteering with the Ukraine Advice Project, said the lengthy delays could leave people vulnerable to traffickers. “While people are waiting on the UK government to make a decision, they are not making a decision to go somewhere else. The longer it takes, the more it puts some people at risk of human trafficking.”
Anti-slavery commissioner Dame Sara Thornton also said she was “gravely concerned” about the “very real threat of human trafficking facing refugees … at the Ukrainian borders and along their journey to destination countries, including the UK”.
But home secretary Priti Patel has warned that lifting security checks would allow Mr Putin to send operatives into the UK, claiming that the Russian president could use female agents to unleash chemical and biological attacks like the 2018 Salisbury poisonings.
However, today’s poll for The Independent found that support for a visa waiver for Ukrainians is backed by substantial majorities in every age group, every social class and every region of the UK.
Some 55 per cent of Tory voters backed the waiver, against just 22 per cent who opposed it. And it was backed by 62 per cent of Labour supporters, 71 per cent of Liberal Democrats, 54 per cent of Greens and 61 per cent of SNP voters.
There was strong backing for Mr Johnson’s policy of providing military and financial assistance to the Ukrainian government. Almost two-thirds (65 per cent) said the UK should continue to supply money and defence equipment to the Ukrainians, compared to just 11 per cent who said it should not.
Many said the UK should impose sanctions on Russia, even if it means energy prices rising for domestic consumers, with 65 per cent backing the measures and 12 per cent opposed.
However, there was considerable wariness at the prospect of UK troops being deployed to fight Russia alongside the Ukrainians. Some 44 per cent said they would oppose direct UK involvement in the war, compared to 31 per cent who said they would support it.
Savanta ComRes questioned 2,203 UK adults on 19 and 20 March.
The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered.
To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.