In my previous post on the statement of changes to the UK’s immigration rules, I mentioned that the deadline for new applications to the Ukrainian Extension Scheme had been extended. While welcome news for many people using the scheme, it highlights an issue regarding the scheme (and the other schemes available to Ukrainians fleeing the invasion of their country by Russia), namely that there is a lot of uncertainty and instability surrounding the long-term options for people using them. The UK government is stalling on a permanent solution to this issue, which causes further uncertainty. In this post, I will look at the UK government’s schemes for people fleeing the war in Ukraine, the long-term issues facing Ukrainians in the UK and some potential solutions.
On 24 February 2022, Russian forces entered Ukrainian territory, the first step in Russia’s full-scale military invasion of Ukraine. It escalated the conflict between the two countries that had begun in 2014 with Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine. The two countries have had a hostile relationship with each other since Ukraine declared independence from what was then the Soviet Union in 1991.
The invasion has led to the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians and military personnel, extensive environmental damage, a worldwide food crisis, and millions of Ukrainians being forced to flee their homes to seek protection abroad. Over eight million people have left Ukraine since February 2022, creating the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.
Most Ukrainian refugees have sought refuge in countries in continental Europe, with Poland and Germany being the biggest recipients of Ukrainians fleeing the war. Over 100,000 Ukrainians, however, have sought sanctuary in the UK. Initially, only Ukrainians with pre-existing UK visas or with family in the UK were allowed to enter. In March 2022, the UK government announced a series of schemes for Ukrainian nationals fleeing the country. These would allow them and their families to enter or remain in the UK for three years.
The three bespoke Ukraine Schemes being offered by the UK government are the following:
The Sponsorship Scheme operates alongside the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which allows people and households in the UK to host Ukrainians in their own homes or other properties. Additionally, more flexibility has been given to Ukrainians with valid UK visas to switch onto other visa routes – for example, Ukrainians with visit visas were allowed to switch to a work visa or a family visa without having to leave the UK.
Currently, the number of Ukrainian war refugees in the UK stands at 183,600. Most of those people arrived through the Sponsorship Scheme, with 130,000 people using this route. A further 27,000 Ukrainians had their permission to stay in the UK extended, mostly through the Extension Scheme. All three schemes granted successful applicants leave to remain in the UK for three years and allowed them to access employment, education, healthcare and welfare.
One of the main problems is the length of time that they can stay in the UK. The three-year leave to remain, as things currently stand, cannot be renewed. When questioned on this, the UK government has been unequivocal in saying that the schemes are only meant to provide temporary refuge to Ukrainians and not a route for settlement in the UK. The UK government’s stated intention is that once the war in Ukraine is over, Ukrainians in the UK under these routes should return to their homeland.
The first question many will ask is: what if the war goes on for over three years? As the schemes are still accepting new applications, the three-year period ends three years from when it was granted, so in theory there will be people able to stay in the UK under one of the schemes until the middle of 2027. However, the majority of those currently with permission to stay in the UK under these schemes either arrived before or in the six months after the invasion. This means that their right to be in the UK will end in the autumn of 2025. While much may change between now and then, it does not currently look like the fighting in Ukraine will end any time soon. Even if the war were to finish before September 2025, it will likely take several years for Ukraine to be in a position to be able to accommodate so many returning citizens, as the country’s infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed during the war.
It is very likely that in the event the war continues past 2025, the schemes will be extended. That does not, however, address the other elephant in the room, namely the idea that every Ukrainian refugee in the UK will be able and willing to immediately end their life in the UK and return to Ukraine.
While many Ukrainians in the UK will be keen to return home as soon as possible, particularly women and children with family members still in Ukraine on active military duty (since the invasion, Ukraine instituted a draft for all adult men under 60), this will not be the case for everyone. In those three years, many Ukrainians will have set down roots in the UK – many will have settled into careers, started businesses, begun university degrees, and generally begun to consider the UK their home. Their children will be in UK schools, have made friends and be studying hard for their GSCEs and A-Levels. Some younger children may have few if any memories of Ukraine and will consider the UK to be their homeland. Some will be receiving treatment for health problems that cannot necessarily be continued to the same degree in Ukraine, especially a Ukraine rebuilding from the ashes of war, and some may be too ill to be able to leave the UK. Many will have fallen in love, gotten married, and want to continue their lives in the UK with their new loved ones.
These kinds of ties are not ones that can be severed painlessly at a moment’s notice and, crucially, the longer they are in the UK, the harder it will be to sever these ties and the more people to which it will apply. Three years is a long time, especially if you are a child or a teenager, and if the schemes are extended to 2026, 2027 and further, we are talking about even larger percentages of people’s lives. It is not fair to have to abandon their new lives at the drop of a hat, especially when it could involve families being ripped apart.
As mentioned before, the UK government has offered some flexibility to Ukrainians when it comes to switching visa routes. Many who wish to remain will be able to apply to switch to another visa without having to leave the UK. In many cases, this is not an unfair solution to the problems cited above. Others will mean the criteria for further leave to remain on human rights grounds. These routes, however, have their own eligibility criteria and requirements, and there will always be those who have a legitimate reason for wanting to stay but who will struggle to meet the criteria.
The most obvious solution would be to allow these schemes to become a route to settlement. Ukrainians in the UK under the Sponsorship Scheme could be offered refugee status and/or humanitarian protection, while those with leave under the Family Scheme or the Extension Scheme could be allowed to stay for five years under those schemes and be allowed to apply for Indefinite Leave to Remain when they have completed those five years.
Alternatively, a bespoke arrangement could be made for Ukrainians using these schemes, which could allow for extensions to current leave to remain, a route to settlement on its own terms, or a combination of the above. The UK government could also alter the guidelines for applications made outside the rules and/or on the basis of human rights to allow Ukrainians to be more easily approved.
While many Ukrainians will be grateful for the limited protection already offered to them by the UK government, there needs to be a long-term solution that does not involve potentially ripping families apart, leaving businesses in the lurch and cause upheaval for hundreds of thousands of people (not just Ukrainians but also British citizens or people settled in the UK who will be impacted by the immigration status of certain Ukrainains). Some certainty and stability are needed by all those involved. The UK government has many options, all of which will inevitably cause some issues as no solution will ever be completely free of pain, but it needs to choose one at some point and it would be prudent to choose one sooner rather than later, as kicking the issue into the long grass will just make the choices harder and more painful when they do end up being made.