People fleeing Ukraine are escaping the “most atrocious set of circumstances”, the Home Secretary has said during her trip to the Polish border.
Priti Patel traveled to Poland to mark the Ukraine family scheme opening on Friday to allow Britons and those settled in the UK to bring their relatives over to join them.
Ms Patel, speaking to reporters, said there was work going on “night and day” to ensure those fleeing the advancing Russian troops could seek refuge.
The Cabinet minister said people crossing the border – the majority of them women and children – were coming from the “most atrocious set of circumstances where they are being persecuted by President Putin”.
She was in the country “very much in terms of standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, but also with our friends here in Poland”, Ms Patel said.
The UK’s initial visa offer was restricted to immediate family but was widened on Tuesday to include parents, grandparents and siblings, with applications opening on Friday.
A sponsorship scheme will also allow individuals and organizations to bring Ukrainians to the UK.
Ms Patel said: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Ukraine but also with our dear friends here in Poland, who are working really night and day, we can all see this, under incredible circumstances.”
The new family extension route will allow thousands more Ukrainians to come to the UK, with three years’ leave to remain – free of charge – and access to benefits and the right to work.
The Home Office, approached on Friday afternoon, said it was too early to say how many applications had been made via the Ukraine family scheme.
Ms Patel said it was “heartbreaking” to have met those “forced from their homeland because of the monstrous Russian invasion”.
But she said seeing the first people who will apply to the expanded scheme was “wonderful”.
“While we want people to be able to return to their homes at the end of this diabolical invasion, giving thousands of people a route to the UK is the right thing to do,” she said.
“The whole of the UK is united in our condemnation of Russia’s barbaric and cold-blooded actions and the Government is doing everything possible to make certain our humanitarian support is in Ukraine’s best interests.”
Labor has urged the Home Office to go further by creating a simple emergency visa allowing anyone fleeing the conflict to come to the UK.
The party said the move would lift normal visa conditions other than biometrics and security checks, which could be done en route to the UK.
It comes as MPs criticized the support provided by ministers to people looking to escape the Taliban in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of Western troops in the summer, and drew parallels with the unfolding crisis in Ukraine.
The Commons International Development Committee published a report on Friday, Afghanistan: UK Support for Aid Workers and the Afghan People, and said the Government had been “inflexible in its response” to the plight of people looking to escape the central Asian country.
Sarah Champion, the Labor chair of the committee, said: “By only making limited concessions to pre-existing UK immigration routes, the response from the Home Office to the situation in Ukraine shows an inflexible and begrudging approach to an acute humanitarian situation.
“As in Afghanistan, there has been a lack of clarity – and agonizing slowness of pace – in explaining what UK immigration routes are available.”
She called for the Government to be “significantly more agile” in adapting existing immigration routes, stating that the “safety of countless people and their families depends on it”.
According to the UN refugee agency, more than 1.2 million people have left Ukraine since the fighting began.
More than 165,000 people left the country on Thursday – down slightly from Wednesday’s count and well under the nearly 200,000 on Tuesday, which amounted to the peak one-day exit of people from Ukraine since Moscow’s attack began, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.