“The (family visa) scheme went live last Friday, and has already seen over 10,000 applications submitted, of which over 500 visas have been issued with more being issued as we speak,” Immigration Minister Kevin Foster told parliament on Tuesday.
The number of refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now increased to 2 million, the head of the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said on Tuesday.
“This is a disgrace,” said Alec Shelbrooke, a lawmaker from the governing Conservative Party in one of several angry interventions from all sides during a tense emergency debate.
“We don’t want to stand in this House and listen to plans and processes, we want dates, we want action and the Home Office must react far more quickly than it’s doing,” he said.
The EU has agreed to grant temporary residency to refugees and give them access to employment, social welfare and housing for up to three years. Ireland has so far taken in more than 2,000 Ukrainian refugees since it lifted visa requirements.
“This country … has come nowhere even close to that. Why not?” said fellow Conservative MP Andrew Murrison, citing the Irish figures.
Foster defended the government’s insistence on security checks, citing a 2018 nerve agent attack in the southern English city of Salisbury. Britain blames that on three Russian military intelligence officers who entered Britain as tourists using fake identities.
“Sadly, we are already seeing people presenting at Calais with false documents claiming to be Ukrainian. With incidents like Salisbury still in our minds, the government will not take chances with the security of this country and our people,” he said.
Apart from crisps and Kit Kats, the government has also struggled to explain what support it is offering to migrants arriving in the French port of Calais after a diplomatic spat with France on Sunday, when Paris said refugees without visas were being turned away.
This is when the non-existent visa centre was cited. The spat marked the latest diplomatic row between the two countries following Britain’s departure from the European Union, which has resulted in arguments over how to tackle migrants crossing the English Channel, as well as fishing rights.
The French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin had urged Britain on Sunday to do more to help those Ukrainian refugees stuck in Calais, saying British officials were turning many away due to not having the necessary visas or paperwork.
“I have twice contacted my British counterpart, I told her to set up a consulate in Calais,” Darmanin told Europe 1 radio.
Darmanin said hundreds of Ukrainian refugees had arrived at Calais in the last few days, hoping to join family in the UK, but that many had been turned away by British officials and told to obtain visas at UK consulates in Paris or Brussels.
But British Minister Foster insisted: “It is essential we do not create a choke point at places like Calais where there are dangerous people smugglers present but also to ensure the smooth flow of people through the system from across Europe,” Foster said.
“We’ve made significant progress in a short space of time.”
Migration is a sensitive issue in Britain, where Brexit campaigners told voters that leaving the European Union would mean regaining control of borders. London has in the past threatened to cut financial support for France’s border policing if it fails to stem the flow of migrants.
Meanwhile, those in office continue to assume that sound and fury will continue to be mistaken for action by a credulous British public. Those days seem to be coming to an end.