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Can Ukrainians take refuge in the UK? The Ukraine Family Scheme and other routes
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Can Ukrainians take refuge in the UK? The Ukraine Family Scheme and other routes

The Home Office has put in place some immigration concessions and special visa schemes in response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. This includes the very important Ukraine Family Scheme. The department’s “core plan” is to issue visas rather than formal refugee status to Ukrainian citizens, keeping them out of the crumbling asylum system. The policy on Ukrainian asylum claims was withdrawn at the outset of the invasion and has not been reissued since.

This article was originally published in late February and has been updated several times to take account of at times rapidly changing rules. Things have now settled down and any major developments should be reflected on the main government website pages on immigration and asylum for Ukrainians. The main issue in recent weeks has been delays in getting a visa decision, for which there is no likely legal remedy. The minister for refugees now says that straightforward applications under the special Ukraine visa schemes should now be decided within 48 hours. 

Immigration lawyers volunteering to provide pro bono advice through the Ukraine Advice Project have access to a fact sheet that addresses the issues below in more detail. That project is ongoing under the management of DLA Piper and volunteer support from immigration specialists is still welcome.

Special visa schemes for people fleeing Ukraine

The starting point is that Ukrainians are visa nationals. This means that they need a visa to enter the UK and cannot just turn up at the border and ask to be admitted. The Home Office position is that the borders are not being thrown open and that people must get a visa before travel.

The Ukraine Family Scheme

For many Ukrainians with existing ties to the UK, the main route will now be the Ukraine Family Scheme. This allows British citizens and many immigrants living in the UK to sponsor Ukrainian relatives who would not normally qualify for a family visa, including parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles and in-laws.

Applications are free and there is no Immigration Health Surcharge. The visa comes with the right to work, study and claim benefits. But permission to stay only lasts for 36 months and there is no mention of a pathway to settlement. Some people granted Family Scheme visas have been told in their acceptance letter that they can settle in the UK only if they successfully extend their permission for ten years.

To apply, you need to fill in an online application form. Many people will then need to attend a visa appointment in person, but Ukrainian international passport holders can skip that step and apply entirely online using a UK government smartphone app. People who have a Ukrainian passport but can’t use the app for whatever reason can still apply online without making a visa appointment abroad, but will need to attend an appointment once in the UK.

Those who still need to book an appointment at a UK Visa Application Centre — which includes children and anyone without a Ukrainian passport — can do so “in any country”. People who have lost their passport or had to flee without it can provide alternative forms of ID as outlined in the detailed policy guidance.

The formal legal rules for the Family Scheme are in Appendix Ukraine Scheme to the Immigration Rules.

Who can sponsor?

You can bring Ukrainian family into the UK if you are a British citizen or a migrant with one of the following statuses

  • Indefinite leave to remain
  • EU settled status
  • EU pre-settled status
  • Refugee status
  • Humanitarian protection
Example

Tim is a Romanian citizen living in London since 2019. He has EU pre-settled status. His brother Tom lives in Kyiv. Tom can apply for a Ukraine Family Status visa on the basis of his relationship with Tim.

Who cannot sponsor?

The scheme does not cover migrants who have temporary immigration permission to be in the UK (other than EU pre-settled status). For example, if you are on a Seasonal Worker or spouse visa, you cannot sponsor family under the scheme.

Example

Michael is a British citizen. He is married to Tanya, a Ukrainian citizen. Tanya has been living in the UK on a spouse visa for three years, so is two years away from getting indefinite leave to remain.

Tanya’s elderly parents live in Kharkiv. Tanya cannot sponsor them under the Ukraine Family Scheme.

If Tanya were Hungarian with pre-settled status in the exact same situation, she could have sponsored her family.

There had been press reports suggesting that the Family Scheme would expand further to allow people with temporary immigration permission to bring relatives over, but that never happened. Some people with temporary permission may be able to sponsor their families using the separate Homes for Ukraine scheme (see next section).

People with pending claims for refugee status or humanitarian protection (asylum seekers) cannot be sponsors either.

Who can be sponsored?

First of all, the sponsor’s “immediate family”:

(i) partner of the UK-based sponsor; or

(ii) child aged under 18 on the date of application of the UK-based sponsor or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner; or

(iii) parent of a child (who is under 18 on the date of application), where the child is the UK-based sponsor; or

(iv) fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner of the UK-based sponsor; or

Example

Andrea is an Irish citizen living in Birmingham. Her fiancé Sergeii has fled Odessa and is in Hungary. Sergeii can apply for the Ukraine Family Scheme because he is Andrea’s immediate family member.

“Partner” means husband/wife, civil partner or living together for at least two years.

Also the sponsor’s “extended family”:

(i) parent of a UK-based sponsor, or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner (where the sponsor or partner is aged 18 or over on the date of application); or

(ii) parent of the UK-based sponsor’s child or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner’s child (where the child is under 18 on the date of application); or

(iii) grandparent of the UK-based sponsor or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner; or

(iv) grandchild of the UK-based sponsor or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner; or

(v) sibling of the UK-based sponsor or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner; or

(vi) adult child (aged 18 or over on the date of application) of the UK- based sponsor or of the UK-based sponsor’s partner; or

(vii) aunt or uncle of the UK-based sponsor; or

(viii)cousin of the UK-based sponsor; or

(ix) niece or nephew of the UK-based sponsor

Example

Migelena is originally from Ukraine but moved to the UK in 2004 and now has indefinite leave to remain. Her elderly parents, Olena and Anton, live in Kyiv with her brother Oleksandr and Oleksandr’s 25-year-old son Michael. All four can apply for Ukraine Family Scheme visas because they are Migelena’s extended family.

In addition, extended family members can bring some of their own immediate family members:

(i) partner of an extended family member; or

(ii) child aged under 18 on the date of application of an extended family member; or

(iii) parent of a child aged under 18 on the date of application, where the child is the extended family member; or

(iv) fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner of an extended family member.

Example

Migelena’s nephew Michael lives with his partner Sacha. She can come too.

Importantly, though, “where applying as an immediate family member of an extended family member, the extended family member must be applying at the same time or have been granted under the scheme”. 

Example

Michael does not apply to the Ukraine Family Scheme because Ukrainian law requires men aged 18-60 to stay in the country. Sacha cannot apply without him.

In this situation it may be worth Michael applying online so that Sacha can get a visa, even if he will not be able to travel along with the rest of the family.

Beyond that, “other family members will be considered where there are exceptional circumstances”. The detailed policy guidance says

Caseworkers should take a pragmatic approach and consider the applicant’s circumstances as well as what meaningful connection the applicant has to their immediate family unit, their sponsor and the UK. A case may be exceptional where, for example, the decision to refuse would mean separating an individual from their long-term family unit.

Nationality-wise, “Applicants to the scheme must be Ukrainian nationals unless they are applying as part of a family group with their immediate family member who is a Ukrainian national”. In other words, there has to be a Ukrainian anchor applicant to bring non-Ukrainians in along with them.

Example

Sacha has Romanian rather than Ukrainian citizenship. She can still come with the rest of the family to join her partner’s aunt Migelena.

Who cannot be sponsored?

Most of the usual grounds for refusal under Part 9 of the Immigration Rules apply. This means that people with criminal records will not be accepted under the scheme.

As we have seen, relatives of Ukrainians who are in the UK on a temporary visa are out of luck.

Finally, the scheme is limited for some reason to people who were ordinarily resident in Ukraine immediately before 1 January 2022. That said, “the starting point for decision makers is to believe the applicant if they confirm they were resident in Ukraine on or before 1 January 2022”.

There is a dedicated Home Office helpline for enquiries about the Family Scheme: +44 808 164 8810 or +44 (0)175 390 7510.

Homes for Ukraine

Also known as the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, this allows Ukrainians to come to the UK if they have a sponsor willing to put them up for at least six months.

Like the Ukraine Family Scheme, people arriving under this scheme can stay for up to three years with the right to work, study and claim public funds. Benefits, housing and NHS regulations have been amended to allow people fleeing the war to access the welfare system and public services.

Applications are online and Ukrainian passport holders can skip the visa application centre appointment. Instead they will be issued with a letter to present at the border. Either the sponsor or the person being sponsored can fill out the application form, so long as they have the other’s details.

Who can sponsor?

Appendix Ukraine Scheme says:

UKR 15.1. An applicant under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme must have an Approved sponsor under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

UKR 15.2. Where a family group is applying under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, the Ukrainian national and their immediate family members (as described in UKR 18.1.) must have the same Approved sponsor under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

An “approved sponsor” is defined not in the Appendix but in paragraph 6.2 of the Rules, as someone who:

meets eligibility and suitability requirements under the Homes for Ukraine sponsor guidance, published by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities at https://www.gov.uk/guidance/homes-for-ukraine-sponsor-guidance.

The sponsor guidance then says that UK residents of any nationality can sponsor provided that they have at least six months’ immigration permission and “can provide accommodation for a period of at least 6 months”. There are also “suitability” checks: “initial Police National Computer (PNC), criminal records and Warnings Index checks”; Disclosure and Barring Service checks; and a visit from the council to ensure that the accommodation is suitable. People sponsoring a family that includes a child or vulnerable adult will get enhanced DBS checks.

Guidance for councils says that local officials “must make at least one in-person visit prior to the arrival of guests wherever possible” and also “are expected to make at least one in person visit once the guest(s) has arrived”.

Who can be sponsored?

Applicants must have been living in Ukraine immediately before 1 January 2022. It’s fine if they have since left Ukraine and are living in some other country, so long as that country is not the UK: applications from within the UK are not allowed.

The applicant also must be a Ukrainian citizen but they can bring immediate family members, who do not have be Ukrainian:

(a) partner of the Ukrainian national; or

(b) child aged under 18 on the date of application of the Ukrainian national or of their partner; or

(c) parent of a Ukrainian national child aged under 18 (where the child is applying under the Homes for Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme); or

(d) fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner of the Ukrainian national.

There is no reason in principle that Ukrainians in the UK on temporary visas, and therefore shut out of the Family Scheme, cannot use Homes for Ukraine to sponsor their family members. But the scheme does not allow applicants to bring along such a wide range of extended family members. It also requires the sponsor to have a spare room or entire home to offer: someone who wants to put their brother up on their coach is told that “a bed in a shared space would not be an appropriate offer of accommodation”.

Regular visas

Document flexibility

There is also a Home Office guidance document on family migration concessions,  limited to Ukrainian citizens. The guidance says that:

Due to the current situation in Ukraine, an applicant may be unable to provide the full range of documents required for the family route under which they are applying. If so, an applicant must explain why they cannot provide a normally required document when they make their application.

The decision maker does not require detailed evidence as to why a document is not available. They can instead be satisfied with a reasonable written explanation provided with the application as to why the document cannot be obtained.

A sufficient and reasonable explanation may for example be that it is not possible to obtain a document from an institution as it is not functioning or is not offering its full range of services due to military conflict.

A similar concession is in place for applications by Ukrainians and their dependants for a range of work and study visas.

These appear similar if not identical to similar documentary evidence concessions recently introduced for Afghan citizens. As well as allowing flexibility on gathering documents for applications from abroad, they allow for people already in the UK on family, work or study routes to switch into other routes where this would not normally be allowed (see below). 

Entering as a visitor for “compassionate reasons”

Separate from the section on family visas, the Home Office website also suggests that people in Ukraine who need to enter the UK urgently “should apply for a visa in the usual way… and include clear compelling or compassionate reasons for your visit in your application”. This would presumably be a visit visa application. Visitors must intend to leave the UK at the end of the visit – a maximum of six months.

Bringing pets

There are emergency arrangements for bringing pet animals from Ukraine to the UK:

Before arrival, people leaving the Ukraine [sic] or their carrier should contact the Animal and Plant Health Agency at [email protected] or call +44 3000 200 301 option 2. They will then be able to confirm their approval for their emergency licence and organise any necessary stay in quarantine which is required to complete the rabies risk management process.

The Home Office has published an information leaflet about pets.

Ukrainians already in the UK

Ukraine Extension Scheme

The Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine are aimed at people in Ukraine trying to come to the UK for the first time. But there were plenty of Ukrainian citizens already here on work, student or even visitor visas. A third scheme aimed at allowing those people to stay in the UK medium-term opened on 3 May 2022.

The rules for this Ukraine Extension Scheme are set out in paragraphs UKR 21.1 to 28.2 of Appendix Ukraine Scheme. Like the others, a Ukraine Extension is free and comes with access to work, study and benefits for 36 months. Despite the name, it is not merely a continuation of existing permission which may tie the person to an employer; with this scheme there is no sponsor involved at all. Applications are online.

Extension scheme applicants “must be in the UK” and there is an important rule about their immigration status:

UKR 21.3. The applicant must have had permission to enter or stay in the UK on 18 March 2022, unless:

(a) they had permission to enter or stay in the UK immediately before 1 January, but that permission has since expired; or

(b) they are a child born in the UK to a parent who qualifies under this paragraph.

The application form adds a warning that “if you did not have permission to be in the UK before 1 January 2022 your application is likely to be refused”. In other words, if you have been an overstayer since before the start of 2022, you are out of luck. People in this position should not be removed from the country but may need to claim asylum in order to have any kind of legal status in the UK.

Nor is there anything about people who get Extension Scheme permission being able to bring family over. They still do not qualify to sponsor under the Family Scheme. Switching onto this scheme improves their own rights in the UK, but it doesn’t help their family back in Ukraine.

Regular visa extensions

There are more limited concessions allowing Ukrainians already in the UK to switch from one visa type to another, including from a visit visa to a work visa. Details are set out in two Home Office guidance documents, one for people on family visas and another for people on work or study visas

Applicants need to notify the Home Office in writing in the course of their application that they wish to be considered for the concession and their reasons why. This can be done by putting the relevant information in the online form or an accompanying cover letter. It is likely that they will not be considered under the concession policy without this, even if it’s clear that this is what they are trying to do.

Ukrainians in the UK on the Seasonal Worker route are getting their permission to stay extended to 31 December 2022:

You do not need to do anything. UKVI will work with your Immigration Sponsor to progress your visa extension. You’ll receive a notification from the Home Office that this concession applies to you.

The exception is for pork butchers, who need to request the extension.

The person must continue to work in their Seasonal Worker role, whether that is as an agricultural labourer, HGV driver or pork butcher.

Immigration minister Kevin Foster said on 16 March that “broadly, our approach will be that no one will need to return to Ukraine for immigration reasons”.

Family Scheme

The Ukraine Family Scheme can now be used by people who are already in the UK. The guidance says that “applicants who meet the requirements of the scheme, and who are in the UK, also qualify”. Paragraph UKR 5.2 of the Immigration Rules says:

An applicant applying for permission to stay under the Ukraine Family Scheme must be in the UK and either:

(a) have permission; or

(b) have had permission immediately before 1 January 2022 which has since expired,

but permission as a visitor granted after 18 March 2022 does not count as permission for the purpose of this requirement.

The family ties required for sponsorship are outlined above. The detailed guidance on the scheme adds that for people already in the UK, “periods of overstaying or immigration bail will not lead to refusal and the applicant does not need to have valid leave on the date of application”.

This may be a good option for people who might otherwise need to claim asylum (see below). Asylum claims can take years to process and the person may not be able to work in the meantime, whereas the Family Scheme is much more generous. The government’s approach is that “asylum should be the safety net; it should not be our core plan for people”.

Asylum

You cannot apply for asylum outside the UK or get a visa for the specific purpose of claiming asylum. 

People who do make it to the UK can apply for asylum if they have a well-founded fear of persecution or are at general risk of serious harm. If successful, they would be granted refugee status or humanitarian protection. The UN Refugee Agency says that nobody should be sent back to Ukraine at the moment even if their asylum claim is unsuccessful. 

All Home Office country policy and information notes on Ukraine have been removed or withdrawn, which suggests that the government is still reassessing its policy on asylum claims by Ukrainians. In their absence, it is not possible to be definitive about the chances of a successful claim. But given the well-documented massacres of Ukrainian civilians, grounds for protection in the UK become harder to ignore. Asylum seekers could argue that they have a well-founded fear of persecution on the ground of Ukrainian nationality given the conduct of the invading Russian forces.

One of the guidance documents now withdrawn, which covered the Russian-occupied areas of Crimea, Donetsk or Luhansk, suggested that people who expressed sympathy with Ukrainian nationalism may be at risk in these areas but could relocate to other areas of Ukraine for protection. Now that Russia controls more territory, this logic applies beyond Crimea etc, and internal relocation may no longer be an option, given the difficulties and dangers of moving around parts of Ukraine.

Depending on conditions on the ground, there may also be a situation whereby even if someone does not qualify for refugee status, they are eligible for humanitarian protection because they would be at general risk of unlawful killing or serious harm. 

Other asylum seekers may fear persecution or serious harm by the Ukrainian state because of issues arising from military conscription, such as:

  • The general treatment/conditions of military service;
  • The individual is a conscientious objector;
  • Their sexual orientation would put them at risk in military service;
  • They refused penalties for desertion;
  • Prison conditions for draft evaders are such that an individual risks serious harm. 

However, the person’s treatment must reach a high threshold of persecution or serious harm. The country guidance case of PK and OS (basic rules of human conduct) Ukraine CG [2020] UKUT 314 (IAC) found that it is not reasonably likely that a draft evader avoiding conscription or mobilisation in Ukraine would face criminal or administrative proceedings. That said, the Home Office has agreed to withdraw its decision to refuse asylum to the appellant OS and so others in his position could also argue that things have changed since that case was decided.

It may also be possible for Ukrainians to claim asylum based on sexual identity given recent evidence about the treatment of the LGBT+ community.

This article was originally published on 23 February by Alex Piletska and Katherine Soroya. It has been updated so that it is correct as of the new date of publication shown.

The Free Movement blog was founded in 2007 by Colin Yeo, a barrister at Garden Court Chambers specialising in immigration law. The blog provides updates and commentary on immigration and asylum law by a variety of authors.

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