France’s interior minister has accused the British government of showing a “lack of humanity” when it comes to helping the Ukrainian refugees who have fled the Russian invasion and are now waiting in Calais for permission to join their families in the UK.
Hundreds of Ukrainians have come to the northern French port in the last few days in the hope of crossing the Channel so they can be with relatives who are already established in the UK.
According to the French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, 400 Ukrainian refugees have presented themselves at Calais border crossings in recent days – only for 150 of them to be told to go away and obtain visas at UK consulates in Paris or Brussels.
In a letter to the UK home secretary, Priti Patel, Darmanin called on the British government to set up a proper consular service in Calais, adding that its response so far was “completely unsuitable” and showed a “lack of humanity“ towards refugees who were often “in distress”.
In the letter, seen by the Agence France-Presse news agency, Darmanin wrote: “It is imperative that your consular representation – exceptionally and for the duration of this crisis – is able to issue visas for family reunification on the spot in Calais.”
The minister said it was “incomprehensible” that the UK was able to provide such services on the ground in Poland on the Ukrainian border but could not do so in the its closest neighbour, France. Darmanin told French radio he had contacted Patel twice requesting that the UK set up a consulate in Calais.
Although an extended visa scheme to allow more people from Ukraine to join relatives in the UK has been launched by the government, plans for a humanitarian refugee scheme to help those without family ties in Britain have yet to be announced.
The Home Office said it had increased its weekly visa processing appointments in the region from 500 to 6,000 a week to speed up applications from individuals hoping to join relatives in Britain, and had increased the amount of time people would be allowed to stay in Britain from one to three years. Officials said it was too soon to say how many people would apply.
Darmanin’s letter to Patel comes months after a new surge in post-Brexit tensions between the two countries in the wake of the drowning in November of 27 people trying to cross the Channel to England in a small boat.
The tragedy prompted both sides to exchange accusations of not doing enough to protect refugees and crack down on people traffickers who organise the dangerous crossings in small boats.
“Our coasts have been the scene of too many human tragedies,” Darmanin told Patel, alluding to the risk that Ukrainians could seek to cross clandestinely by sea if they did not obtain visas.
“Let’s not add to that those Ukrainian families,” he said.
The deputy prime minister, Dominic Raab, defended 150 Ukrainian refugees reportedly having been disallowed from crossing the channel to the UK at Calais for not having the correct visas. He said the government was not prepared to “just open the door” because that would “undermine the popular support” for helping Ukrainians and therefore hurt “genuine refugees”.
“We need to make sure that we’re acting for those who need our support,” Raab told the BBC’s Sunday Morning show. He said up to 200,000 Ukrainians with family links to the UK could apply for a visa and that a new route allowing businesses, charities and individuals to sponsor Ukrainian refugees would be uncapped.
Raab, who is also the justice secretary, claimed Britain had shown it would “step up to the plate” to help those in need, citing the Afghan resettlement programme and visas issued to British nationals living in Hong Kong. He added that “most people” in Ukraine would either stay in the country or go to a neighbouring nations in the hope of being able to return home.
Immigration lawyers in the UK have written to the government calling on it to accelerate the launch of a humanitarian route for refugees and requesting visa requirements to be lifted for all Ukrainians seeking to come to the UK. The Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association wrote that the current policy was “piecemeal” and was causing “confusion, uncertainty, further distress, and impediments to access to safety in the UK for an already vulnerable group of people”.
The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, said an emergency Home Office team should be sent to Calais immediately.