Bristol ‘stands ready’ to welcome Ukrainian refugees as MP says visa changes are ‘immoral’

Bristol stands ready to offer sanctuary to those fleeing the war in Ukraine, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has said.

Since Russia launched attacks on Ukraine last week, half a million people have now left the country, the United Nations estimates. However, the UN has warned that up to seven million people could end up fleeing the country as a result of the war.

Last night the UK Government announced the relaxation of visa rules, allowing Ukrainians with immediate family in Britain to flee to the UK. However, critics have said the offer does not go far enough and Labour has described the proposals as shameful, with the Refugee Council saying the UK appeared “mean-spirited” and unwelcoming.

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However, Bristol Mayor Marvin Rees has now said the city stands ready to welcome those fleeing the war. Mr Rees wrote on Facebook: “Bristol stands alongside Ukraine and its citizens – as well as those protesting in Russia against war – and stands ready to offer sanctuary to those fleeing.”

No details have been announced yet by any of the local authorities in the region regarding the number of refugees they are expecting to welcome, or when they are expected to start arriving. Thangam Debbonaire, MP for Bristol West, was among those MPs criticising the government proposals for Ukrainian refugees, calling them “immoral”.

Marvin Rees Mayor of Bristol at City Hall
(Image: John Myers)

She said: “For those of us living in peace and security in Bristol, it is difficult to imagine being forced to leave your homes with no idea when you can return. We should do everything we can to help Ukrainians fleeing conflict find safety and sanctuary.

“Ukraine is under fire. People are fleeing war. Yet the Home Office are still applying normal visa restrictions such as on salaries, English language, and only close relatives. And government Ministers are telling refugees to apply for visas designed for fruit-pickers. This isn’t solidarity with Ukraine, it is immoral. The Government must urgently provide a simple sanctuary route to UK for all who need it.”

Downing Street has distance itself from a now-deleted post from the immigration minister, who tweeted that Ukrainian refugees could apply to pick fruit in Britain. Tory MP Kevin Foster replied to Labour MP Luke Pollard on Twitter saying there are a ‘number of routes’ for refugees from the war.

Kerry McCarthy, MP for Bristol East, has criticised the measures currently in place for refugees and described them as “simply inadequate”, with the Home Office continuing to impose stringent visa requirements on those fleeing war.

She said: “The announcement that only those with ‘close relatives’ (i.e., children or spouses) will be afforded a visa is embarrassingly weak. Where does this leave those with elderly parents fleeing the conflict? Or reassure those in the Bristol area who are desperate to hear from their siblings?

“This conflict will displace millions of Ukrainians, and our response shapes the nature of our country and our city. We cannot be silent in the face of persecution, and it’s our moral duty to be welcoming to those who need a safe new home.

“The priority of the Government has to be establishing a more inclusive visa-waiver scheme that applies to ALL relatives, and a simple sanctuary route for refugees fleeing danger. I fear the Government hasn’t learnt the lessons of the Afghan refugee crisis last summer.

Lyviv Railway Station as refugees desperate to leave tried to get a train out of Ukraine
(Image: Daily Mirror/Andy Stenning)

“The Home Office Parliamentary-under-Secretary Kevin Foster even suggested there were “a number of routes, not least our seasonal worker scheme” available to Ukrainians escaping war…because a complex, protracted application process to pick fruit is exactly the empathetic welcome this crisis calls for…

“In contrast Bristol stands in solidarity with the people of Ukraine, this absolutely extends to sanctuary. I’m sure that Bristol, as always, will be ready to play its part.”

Darren Jones, MP for Bristol North West, said: “Last year the people of Bristol embraced refugees from Afghanistan fleeing tyranny and will welcome Ukrainians seeking refuge from Russian aggression.

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“The Home Office’s priority must be to immediately establish a safe sanctuary route for Ukrainian refugees. That means working with our European allies to coordinate assistance across borders, removing impractical visa barriers and fully supporting Ukrainians travelling to reunite with their family in the UK.”

North Somerset Council was the first council in the region to say it was standing ready to welcome refugees displaced by the war in Ukraine. South Gloucestershire Council has since made a similar pledge.

Cllr Toby Savage, leader of South Gloucestershire Council: “South Gloucestershire has always played its part in helping to support and to resettle people affected by conflict who have come to this country. Our thoughts are focused on the terrible events in Ukraine and of course we stand ready to play our role in resettling people forced to flee the war in that country.

“We will engage positively with the Government to support any scheme they establish to bring in refugees from Ukraine and I know that our residents will hold out the hand of friendship and welcome to them.

“We await details of any new scheme and also welcome the Government’s announcement that Ukrainians already settled in the UK can bring their immediate family members to join them. This provides a route for Ukrainians fleeing disaster, war and persecution to come here. We also welcome the announcement of a further £40 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine to provide vital medical supplies.”

Home Secretary’s response

In Parliament this afternoon, Priti Patel ruled out a visa waiver for Ukrainians because of fears that Moscow’s troops and extremists could seek to come to the UK. The Home Secretary told MPs she was following the “strongest security advice” as she rejected the call to scrap the need for visas.

“Over the weekend I have seen members of this House calling for full visa waivers for all Ukrainians,” Ms Patel said. “Security and biometric checks are a fundamental part of our visa approval process worldwide and will continue, as they did for the evacuation of people from Afghanistan.

“That is vital to keep British citizens safe and to ensure that we are helping those in genuine need, particularly as Russian troops are now infiltrating Ukraine and merging into Ukrainian forces. Intelligence reports also state the presence of extremist groups and organisations who threaten the region but also our domestic homeland.

“We know all too well what Putin’s Russia is willing to do, even on our soil, as we saw through the Salisbury attack.” The Home Secretary said the first phase of the “bespoke humanitarian route” being created for Ukrainians to enter the UK would allow around 100,000 people to come to “seek sanctuary”.

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