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Migration and the Ukraine crisis

14 Mar 2022

By Peter William WalshMadeleine Sumption

This commentary has been updated to reflect new data and policy developments.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to large-scale displacement. In the first two months weeks of the war, more than 5 million people fled the country, according to UN estimates. While Eastern European countries are at the front lines of this crisis—particularly Poland, but also Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania—there has been fraught debate about the UK response.

This briefing reviews statistics on what we know about Ukrainian migration to the UK before and after the Russian invasion.

The UK’s “bespoke humanitarian route”

At the time of writing, the government was making available two main routes for Ukrainians to come to the UK, in response to the crisis. The first is a visa scheme for family members of British citizens or people with permanent status in the UK (the Ukraine Family Scheme, which opened for applications on 4 March 2022). This policy requires people to apply for a visa from outside of the UK.

The second route was a programme that would allow any Ukrainian national, or the immediate family member of a Ukrainian national, fleeing the conflict to come to the UK if they can find a sponsor within the community (the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, also known as Homes for Ukraine, which opened for applications on 18 March 2022). UK residents can register their interest in hosting refugees in their homes or another home that they own. On 15 March, the government stated that over 100,000 UK residents had registered their interest in hosting Ukrainian refugees in their homes.

UK policy has changed several times since late February. For updated information about the different schemes and details on who is eligible for them, see the guidance provided by the Home Office, and the Ukraine Advice Project.

In addition to Ukrainian citizens seeking to come to the UK, there are also people who were already living in the UK when the crisis started, but do not have permanent status here and cannot now return home when their visas expire. At the end of 2020, there were an estimated 9,600 Ukrainian citizens in the UK with temporary visas—excluding tourists and other visitors—primarily as temporary workers (3,300), skilled workers (2,000) and students (1,800). More recent figures will not be available until May, and the number will have increased due to the expansion of the seasonal agricultural worker route in 2021, which is mostly staffed by Ukrainian citizens (see below). The government has extended visas for these temporary visa holders. At the time of writing in March 2022, however, Ukrainians on temporary visas were not eligible to bring family members under the family scheme outlined above, although there are indications this could change.

How does the UK approach compare to that of other countries in Europe?

There are two key differences between the UK approach and the approach taken by EU countries: the visa requirement and the eligibility criteria.

On 4th March 2022, the EU introduced a ‘temporary protection’ status for those who have been displaced. Under this scheme, those who have been displaced as a result of the Russian invasion do not need to apply for asylum but can receive a temporary status. This status is initially for one year but may be extended to three years depending on how the situation in Ukraine evolves.

Before the war began, Ukrainian citizens were already eligible to travel to the EU without applying in advance for a visa. Ireland previously required a visa for Ukrainians (its visa-free travel list has traditionally been coordinated with the UK as a result of the Common Travel Area), but lifted the requirement on 25 February 2022, the day after the Russian invasion, in order to enable people with family in Ireland to travel there quickly.

The UK’s approach is thus more restrictive than the EU’s in two respects. Not all Ukrainians are automatically eligible—they either need UK family connections or sponsorship (under the sponsorship scheme that was still being set up at the time of writing). And they must apply for a visa in advance. On 10 March 2022, the Home Secretary announced that in-person appointments would no longer be required for applicants with passports, although the visa requirement remained in place and people without passports needed in-person appointments.

There are now early data on applications and visa issuances for the two Ukraine schemes. These show that as of 5 May 2022, the Ukraine Family Scheme, which opened for applications on 4 March 2022, had received 44,200 applications (with one application required per person), with 36,300 visas issued.The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (also known as Homes for Ukraine), which opened on 18 March, had received 80,900 applications as of 5 May, with 59,100 visas issued (Figure 1a). This means that as of 5 May 2022, a total of 125,100 applications had been submitted for both schemes, with 95,500 visas issued – although only 37,400 of these visa holders have actually arrived in the UK by 3 May 2022: 17,900 under the Family Scheme, and 19,500 under the Sponsorship Scheme.

Figure 1a

The Home Office has also released data on the number of visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, by the local authority of the individual sponsor’s property (this does not include those for whom the sponsor is not an individual, or is the Scottish or Welsh government, which have sponsored some visa applicants). These show that all of the UK’s 374 local authorities contain the property of at least one sponsor, with the average for a local authority being 134 (Figure 1b, UK map). The local authority with the most sponsors’ properties was Buckinghamshire, where 852 Homes for Ukraine visa-holders’ sponsors had their nominated property. London is a particular hotspot for sponsors, with around 8,100 visas being issued to people whose sponsor’s property is in the capital, with London’s local authorities (its 32 boroughs, plus the City of London) receiving an average of 246 Homes for Ukraine visa-holders, 112 more than the local authority average for the UK (Figure 1b, London map).

Figure 1b

How many Ukrainians will come to the UK?

There is no cap on the number of people who can come under the schemes, and the number of people eligible for the schemes is not known.

The government has stated that up to 200,000 people would be eligible to come to the UK. These figures are extremely speculative, as the data do not exist to calculate the number of eligible people. Indeed, the Home Secretary has also recognised this, stating in Parliament that “we should be very honest and level with everyone that we do not know the number of people who will seek to come to the United Kingdom. Frankly, we are basing this on our conversations with ambassadors representing the region in London”.

One important factor that shapes refugees’ choice of destination is the presence of family and friends. Many Ukrainians are thus likely to go to places where they know people who can support them. Several EU countries have large Ukrainian diasporas and are thus likely be primary destinations. For example, Poland issues hundreds of thousands of residence permits every year to Ukrainian citizens. Many of the permits are short term, which can make it difficult to estimate how many people are in the country at a given time. In 2019, however, the Polish government estimated that 214,700 Ukrainians held valid temporary or permanent residence permits. This does not include Ukrainians who have become Polish citizens or who lack legal status.  In 2021, the estimated number of Ukrainian residents exceeded 100,000 in Italy, Czechia, Germany, and Spain (Figure 2).

Figure 2

The Office for National Statistics estimates using 2019 data that there was a relatively small population of Ukrainian-born residents in the UK, around 38,000 – putting Ukraine in 52nd place in the league table of the most common foreign countries of birth among people in the UK. (Note that these are pre-pandemic figures that are more reliable than 2020 estimates.) The Office for National Statistics has also made an early release of data from the 2021 England and Wales Census, which has not yet been adjusted upwards to account for people who did not respond. This suggested that there were 38,000 Ukrainian-born people in England and Wales in March 2021. Just under 19,000, or half, of the Ukrainian-born population lived in London, and all of the top ten local authorities that were home to Ukrainian migrants were in London. The largest numbers at the local level were found in Newham (1,340), Ealing (1,140), Hounslow (1,120), and Waltham Forest (1,070) (Figure 3). These figures suggest that London is likely to be a primary destination for Ukrainian refugees joining family or friends in the UK.

Figure 3

If we look at other refugee populations, typically the large majority of asylum applicants who make it to Europe remain there, and do not travel on to the UK. Over the past decade, more than 90% of asylum applications in the EU and the UK have been in EU-27 countries; the UK share has fluctuated between 3% and 8%. The share has been lower for Ukrainian asylum seekers, with 98% claiming in the EU-27 and 2% in the UK from 2011 to 2020.

In the past, several EU countries have been more common destinations for asylum seekers than the UK. Data on asylum applications across the EU show that in the ten years from 2011 to 2020 inclusive, the UK ranked fifth in the total number of people who claimed asylum, receiving 5% of the total who claimed asylum across the EU. In the same period, the UK received a smaller share of Ukrainian asylum seekers: 2% of all those who claimed asylum in the 32 EU+ countries, ranking it eleventh across the EU (and equivalent to around 170 applicants per year, compared with an annual average of around 2,800 per year for the whole of the EU) (Figure 4).

The conflict in Ukraine will substantially change the profile of people coming to Europe for protection and thus preferences for different countries may also change. Nonetheless, the figures—similar to the data on Ukrainian-born diasporas outlined above—suggest that the UK is unlikely to be among the largest destinations for Ukrainian refugees.

Figure 4

Historically, the UK has received few asylum claims from Ukrainians, including compared to EU countries. In the 21-year period from 2001 to 2021 inclusive, a total of 3,451 Ukrainian citizens sought asylum in the UK, making up less than 0.5% of the total who claimed asylum in the EU+ (the EEA countries plus Switzerland, which received 854,000 applicants).

Can Ukrainians claim asylum in the UK?

People who receive visas through the Ukraine Family Scheme are not officially designated as asylum seekers or refugees but receive a different temporary status. This status has some benefits over claiming asylum, because it entitles those issued visas under the scheme to the right to work, study, and claim benefits (by contrast, asylum seekers are not generally permitted to work and can only claim benefits if their asylum application is successful). However, Ukrainians who are not issued with visas under the Ukraine Family Scheme may apply for asylum if they can find another way of reaching the UK. This route is more likely to be used by people who are not eligible for the Ukrainian schemes, for example if they do not have qualifying family members in the UK—or those who, when the sponsorship scheme is fully up and running, cannot find a sponsor.

In view of the current situation, the number of Ukrainians making their own way to the UK and claiming asylum can be expected to increase. Forecasting asylum-related migration is extremely difficult, and past attempts to do this have concluded that the exercise is effectively not possible. It is difficult enough to predict the number of people who will leave Ukraine, let alone the numbers who will reach the UK.

Under current rules, to claim asylum in the UK, a person must first be in the UK. There is no humanitarian visa, and so no legal way to reach the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. For an asylum seeker to reach the UK, they must either enter on a visa for some other purpose, such as tourism, and then claim asylum on arrival, or enter the country irregularly. In 2020 and especially 2021, irregular travel to the UK via small boats became an important route into the asylum system. In principle, this route should be less widely used by Ukrainians because Ireland has lifted its visa requirement. This means that Ukrainian citizens, unlike refugees from most other countries, can in theory enter the UK through the Common Travel Area with the Republic of Ireland. Ukrainians who enter Ireland without a visa and then travel on to the UK would be considered to have entered unlawfully, although this does not prevent them from making an asylum application.

Ukrainians who travel to the UK and seek asylum are likely to face quite different conditions compared to those who are eligible for the other schemes. This is because the UK asylum system has a substantial backlog. On 31 December 2021, more than 100,000 individuals were awaiting an initial decision on their application. From 1 April to 30 June 2021, around 6% of applications received an initial Home Office decision within six months. During this time, applicants are not allowed to work. More background on the UK asylum system is available in the Migration Observatory briefing, Asylum and Refugee Resettlement in the UK.

How does UK policy towards people fleeing Ukraine compare with its policy towards other refugees?

In requiring visas and either family connections in the UK or sponsors within the community, the UK’s approach to people fleeing war in Ukraine is more restrictive than that of the EU. But it is nonetheless in certain respects more liberal than the UK’s approach to other refugees.

The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has referred to the UK policies towards Ukrainians as a “bespoke humanitarian route”. The term ‘bespoke’ was also used to describe the Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme announced in August 2021. It could also potentially be applied to other UK policies addressing specific conflicts, such as the resettlement programme for Syrian refugees and the scheme to provide visas for Hong Kong residents with British National Overseas (BNO) status. These ‘bespoke’ routes have provided more support and an easier process for specific groups of refugees, compared to what they would receive if they applied through the ordinary asylum system.

The Ukrainian route illustrates a broader trend in recent UK asylum and refugee policy: the government selecting and differentiating between refugees from different conflicts or parts of the world.

Each of these ‘bespoke routes’ has different terms and conditions, and can be compared with the UK’s standard asylum system, in which people must reach the UK in order to apply for asylum (Table 1).

The Afghan resettlement scheme is free and offers immediate settlement, but it cannot be applied for. Because of limited numbers – the government aims to resettle 20,000 over a few years, with a target of 5,000 in the first year – it is not a realistic option for the estimated three million Afghans outside Afghanistan, or the many who are internally displaced within the country.

The scheme for Hong Kong BNOs is open to any of the estimated 5.4 million BNOs and their family members, without requiring family connections in the UK or sponsors. It confers a right to work, study, and live in the UK for up to five years (though benefits are restricted), after which settlement can be applied for. But the application costs are high: applicants must pay for the visa and Immigration Health Surcharge fees, as well as any further applications for settlement or citizenship (see Table 1 in our Q&A: The new Hong Kong British National (Overseas) visa).

The Ukraine schemes are free to apply for, and effectively open to any Ukrainians with either a sponsor or family in the UK, so long as the family members are British citizens or settled residents. The visas are free to apply for and confer the right to work, study and claim benefits in the UK for up to three years, but do not provide a path to permanent residence.

Table 1

How do the Ukraine schemes compare with other asylum or resettlement routes?

 Standard asylum system, UKUK’s Ukraine schemesUK’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement SchemeUK’s Hong Kong BNO visaEU temporary protection
EligibilityAnyone, but must apply in the UK. No visa for the specific purpose of coming to the UK to claim asylum, which necessitates irregular journeys.Family scheme: must have a UK-based family member with British citizenship or permanent residence.

Community sponsorship: must have a UK-based sponsor.
Must have been evacuated to the UK as part of Operation Pitting, or be selected for resettlement by the UN or in an NGO-led referral scheme.Those with BNO status or the close family members (partner, child) of someone with BNO status.Non-EU citizens fleeing Ukraine.
Numerical limitNo.No.Yes:
5,000 in first year up to a maximum of 20,000 in a few years.
(5.4 people estimated to be eligible.)
Entry visa requirementNo asylum visa exists.Visa required.Requires selection for resettlement.Visa required.No visa required for Ukrainians.
Possible to apply (rather than being referred)Yes, but only in the UK.Yes.No.Yes. Yes.
Cost Free.Free.No application possible, though scheme is free.Yes: £3,370 for 5-year visa + Immigration Health Surcharge.Free.
Right to workFor asylum applicants: Generally, no.
For confirmed refugees: Yes.
Access to benefitsFor asylum applicants: No (but receive financial support while waiting for decision).
For confirmed refugees: Yes.
Yes.Yes.No (but may apply to access benefits in certain circumstances).Yes.
Path to settlementFor confirmed refugees: Yes, five years permission to stay, after which settlement can be applied for free.No:
gives 3 years permission to stay.
settlement on arrival.
after five years residence, can apply for settlement (fees apply).

Why are there so many Ukrainian seasonal workers in the UK?

Ukraine has not traditionally been a large country of origin for migrants to the UK, as the data above on the relatively small (38,000) Ukrainian-born population illustrate. However, there is one recent exception to this trend, which is the Seasonal Workers scheme.

After the Brexit referendum, UK farmers began reporting labour shortages as fewer workers – who previously entered under free movement – came for seasonal agricultural roles from EU countries like Poland and Romania. In response—and in anticipation of the end of free movement—the government re-introduced a work visa scheme for seasonal workers. The scheme covers work in horticulture and in late 2021 was expanded to include poultry workers, pork butchers, and lorry drivers. Ukrainians have been by far the biggest users of this route, receiving 70% of the roughly 28,000 Seasonal Worker visas issued in 2021 (Figure 5).

Ukrainian workers currently in the UK on seasonal visas will have them automatically extended to the end of 2022, though there are no figures on how many of these workers are currently still present in the UK.

Figure 5

This has meant that in 2021, Ukraine became the second most common country of citizenship for those receiving any work visa – behind first-place India (Figure 6).

Figure 6

In the seven years from 2012 to 2018, visa issuances to Ukrainian citizens were fairly stable, at around 5,000 per year, excluding tourist visas (Figure 7). From 2019 onwards, the number of work visas issued to Ukrainian nationals rose substantially, reaching over 20,000 in 2021, with 99% of these being issuances of temporary seasonal worker visas.

Figure 7


With thanks to CJ McKinney for valuable comments on a draft of this commentary.

This analysis was produced with the support of Trust for London and Research England’s PSF allocation to the University of Oxford. Trust for London is one of the largest independent charitable foundations in London and supports work which tackles poverty and inequality in the capital. More details at www.trustforlondon.org.uk.


Peter William Walsh
Madeleine Sumption

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