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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 or announced 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 is also reviewing its policy on asylum claims by Ukrainian citizens who are already in the UK or who make their way here in future, but its “core plan” is to issue visas and keep people out of the crumbling asylum system.

The situation is changing quickly and new government announcements or amendments to policy guidance may make what follows out of date. Any such changes should be reflected on the main government website pages on immigration and asylum for Ukrainians.

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.

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 most Ukrainians trying to reach 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 it only lasts “up to 3 years” 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 passport holders (only) can skip that step. Those without passports, who still need to book an appointment at a UK Visa Application Centre, can do so “in any country”. They can provide alternative forms of ID as outlined in the detailed policy guidance.

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 have been conflicting press reports about whether the scheme will expand further to allow people with temporary permission to bring family in using the scheme. At time of writing, that now seems unlikely. 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”:

  • partner of the UK-based sponsor;
  • child aged under 18 on the date of application of the UK based sponsor or their partner;
  • parent of a child aged under 18 on the date of application who is the child of the UK based sponsor; or
  • fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner of the UK based sponsor.
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”:

  • parent of a person aged 18 or over on the date of application who is the UK-based sponsor;
  • grandparent of the UK-based sponsor;
  • grandchild of the UK-based sponsor or their partner;
  • sibling of the UK based sponsor
  • adult child aged 18 or over on the date of application of the UK based sponsor
  • aunt or uncle of the UK based sponsor
  • cousin of the UK based sponsor
  • niece or nephew of the UK based sponsor
  • grandparent, parent or sibling of the UK based sponsor’s partner
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:

  • partner of an extended family member;
  • child aged under 18 on the date of application of an extended family member;
  • parent of a child aged under 18 on the date of application who is an extended family member; or
  • 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 come 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 on or 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.

Acknowledgment email sent to applicants with passports

Thank you for submitting an online application for the Ukraine Scheme which has been received at the UK Decision Making Centre. Your application is currently being prepared for consideration by an Entry Clearance Officer.

Those applying for the Ukraine Scheme from overseas (outside of the United Kingdom) and who are in possession of a valid Ukrainian passport which can be used for international travel, will no longer be required to attend a visa application centre to submit their biometric information.

You have indicated in your application that you hold a valid Ukrainian passport, and our records show you have already uploaded a copy of this document.

You do not have to book or attend an appointment [at] a visa application centre. We will contact you once your application has been processed and send you a permission letter to travel to the United Kingdom. Please continue to check your emails for updates.

You should not travel until you have received a permission letter to travel to the UK.

Kind regards
UK Decision Making Centre

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 recently 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?

The sponsor need not be a relative, but must have a “named individual” to sponsor: applicants without a sponsor are not currently being matched.

Guidance for would-be sponsors says:

Anyone in the UK (of any nationality and any immigration status providing they have at least 6 months’ leave to remain in the UK) with a spare room, or separate self-contained accommodation that is unoccupied can come forward to help. Accommodation must be available for at least 6 months, be fit for people to live in, and suitable for the number of people to be accommodated…

This can be anything from an empty room to an unoccupied home, as long as it’s safe, heated and free from health hazards, and gives your guests adequate access to bathroom and kitchen facilities.

There will also be “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 “Best endeavours should be used to conduct the checks before the arrival of the guest(s), recognising that this will not be possible in all circumstances”.

Who can be sponsored?

Applicants must have been living in Ukraine on or 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:

  • spouse or civil partner
  • unmarried partner (you must have been living together in a relationship for at least 2 years)
  • child who is under 18
  • parent (if you are under 18)
  • fiancé(e) or proposed civil partner

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 wanted 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 “compelling or 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

Switching

Ukrainians who are already in the UK can apply for permission to stay. This includes situations where people would normally be unable to apply in the relevant category, such as switching from a visit visa:

If you are a visitor

The Home Office has introduced a temporary concession to allow Ukrainian nationals in the UK on a visitor visa to switch into a points-based route or a family visa route.

Details of the switching concessions are set out in two Home Office guidance documents, one for people on family visas and another for people on work or study visas

Helpful tables set out the switching rules which can be disapplied under the concession. It is worth noting that the switching concession also applies to adult dependent relative applications, which will be treated as if the requirement to make the application from abroad does not apply. The appropriate application form for this application is likely to be SET(O).

Crucially, 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.

Extensions

The Home Office website says that Ukrainians already in the UK on the Skilled Worker or Student routes can apply to extend their permission, but only “if you meet the Immigration Rules”. This is not a concession.

However, the Work Rights Centre reports that people whose permission is about to expire can apply for an “exceptional assurance”.

To request exceptional assurance, please write to [email protected] with the subject header “Request for an assurance”.

Include your full name, date of birth, nationality, Home Office reference number, type of visa, expiry date of visa, and reason for request (eg: war in Ukraine).

Exceptional assurance is essentially a promise not to remove you from the UK. It is important to be aware that it is not formal immigration permission: getting an exceptional assurance “does not grant you leave”.

Ukrainians in the UK on the Seasonal Worker route are getting their permission to stay extended to 31 December 2022. This is only “if you cannot return to Ukraine”, but extensions are said to be happening automatically:

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 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”. The residence rule is that “a person must have been ordinarily resident in the Ukraine on or immediately before 1 January 2022 unless they are already present in the UK“.

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, and at this stage of the full invasion, it is not possible to be definitive about the chances of a successful asylum claim. But the more fighting escalates, 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 Ukraine at the moment.

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 currently reasonably likely that a draft evader avoiding conscription or mobilisation in Ukraine would face criminal or administrative proceedings.

Given the invasion, there is a chance that treatment may worsen due to additional demands placed on military recruitment, potentially resulting in the risk of treatment that amounts to persecution. Asylum may therefore be a viable route for people in this specific position.

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