By Peter William Walsh & Madeleine Sumption
This briefing has been updated to reflect new data and policy developments.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has led to the large-scale displacement of people. As of 26 July 2022, around five months after the beginning of the war, around 10 million border crossings from Ukraine had been recorded, and over six million individual refugees from Ukraine had been registered across Europe, according to UN estimates. While Central and 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’s response.
This briefing reviews Ukrainian migration to the UK, before and after the Russian invasion. It answers the following questions:
- Where have people left Ukraine for?
- What has the UK offered people fleeing Ukraine?
- How does the UK’s approach compare to that of other European countries?
- How many people have come to the UK under the Ukraine Schemes, and where do they live?
- What do we know about the people who have come to the UK under the Ukraine Schemes?
- Can Ukrainian refugees claim asylum in the UK?
- How does UK policy towards people fleeing Ukraine compare with its policy towards other refugees?
- Why are there so many Ukrainian seasonal workers in the UK?
Where have people left Ukraine for?
The UN provides data on both the border crossings of people leaving Ukraine, and registrations of Ukrainian refugees in European countries. The data presented in Figure 1 below are of the number of refugees from Ukraine (who are not necessarily Ukrainian citizens) who have been registered across Europe. The true number of refugees present in these countries will be different, because not everyone who has left Ukraine will have registered or otherwise been recorded in the country to which they have moved. Nevertheless, these figures help show which countries have been the major destinations for people who have left Ukraine.
The UN data show that the UK has not been a common destination for Ukrainian refugees. Of the roughly 6.4 million people who have left Ukraine for European countries as of 16 August 2022 (or the latest available data for each country), 1.8% went to the UK (Figure 1).
If we focus solely on the 27 EU countries and the UK, as of 16 August 2022 (or the latest available date), there were 4.05 million people registered in these 28 countries. Of these, 3% were registered in the UK, 31% in Poland, 24% in Germany, and 10% in Czechia, with all other EU countries recording percentages of between 0 and 4% of the total of around four million.
The Russian Federation ranks first in the list. But this number should be treated with caution, as many people may not have left Ukraine for Russia of their own volition. The US Department of State suggests that as of 13 July 2022, Russian authorities had forcibly removed between 900,000 and 1.6 million Ukrainian citizens from their homes in Ukraine to Russia. It is not clear whether or how many of these individuals are included in the statistics compiled by the UN Refugee Agency (presented in Figure 1, above).
One important factor that shapes refugees’ choice of destination is the presence of family and friends. As expected, people have left Ukraine for places where they know people who can support them. Several EU countries have large Ukrainian diasporas and have thus become primary destinations.
For example, Poland issued hundreds of thousands of residence permits every year to Ukrainian citizens in the years before the crisis. 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. However, in 2019, 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).
If we look at other refugee populations, typically the large majority of people who move to Europe to claim asylum claim asylum in Europe and not 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 2012 to 2021.
In the past, several EU countries have been more common destinations for asylum seekers than the UK. Data on asylum applications across Europe show that in the ten years from 2012 to 2021 inclusive, the UK ranked sixth in the total number of people who claimed asylum, receiving 5% of the total who claimed asylum across the EU and UK. 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 plus the UK, ranking it eleventh out of 32 (and equivalent to around 175 applicants per year, compared with an annual average of around 2,970 per year for the EU+) (Figure 3).
Historically, the UK has received few asylum claims from Ukrainians, including when compared to EU countries. In the 21-year period from 2001 to 2021 inclusive, a total of around 3,500 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 collectively received 854,000 applicants).
What has the UK offered people fleeing Ukraine?
The government has created three visa schemes for people fleeing the war in Ukraine: the Ukraine Extension Scheme, the Ukraine Family Scheme, and the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, also known as Homes for Ukraine. There is no cap on the number of people who can come under the Ukraine schemes, and the total number of people eligible for the schemes is not known.
The Ukraine Extension Scheme, which opened on 3 May 2022, allows Ukrainians (or their close family members) who were in the UK on temporary visas on or before 18 March 2022 to apply to extend their stay for three years. The visa permits access to benefits, work, and study, but does not provide a pathway towards settlement in the UK. The application is free and does not require applicants to pay the Immigration Health Surcharge.
The Ukraine Family Scheme, which opened for applications on 4 March 2022, is a visa scheme for people fleeing Ukraine who are the family members of either British citizens or people with settlement in the UK. Ukrainians on temporary visas are not eligible to bring family members under the Ukraine Family Scheme. This policy requires people to apply for a visa from outside of the UK.
The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme, also known as Homes for Ukraine, opened for applications on 18 March 2022. This scheme allows any Ukrainian citizen fleeing the conflict, or the immediate family member of a Ukrainian citizen, to come to the UK if they can find a sponsor within the community. The Homes for Ukraine visa lasts for three years.
The Sponsorship scheme has different arrangements for sponsorship in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland. Wales and Scotland introduced ‘super sponsor’ schemes, where the governments of these nations act directly as sponsors, with local authorities finding accommodation rather than it being provided by individual sponsors. However, these super sponsor schemes were temporarily paused as of early June 2022, with the Welsh scheme closed to new applications from 10 June 2022, and the Scottish scheme closed to new applications from 13 July. The government has said that a second phase of the Homes for Ukraine scheme would allow for private or public organisations, such as charities or businesses, to act as sponsors, although at the time of writing this has not been rolled out, and it is unclear when it will be.
For all three schemes, it is not clear whether visa holders will be able to extend their stay beyond three years, or whether the visa will ever provide a pathway to settlement (permanent residence).
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.
How does the UK’s approach compare to that of other European countries?
There are two key areas of difference between the UK approach and the approach taken by EU countries: the visa requirement, and the eligibility criteria.
On 4 March 2022, the EU rolled out a ‘temporary protection’ status for those who have been displaced. Under this scheme, those who have been displaced as a result of the war do not need to apply for asylum but can receive temporary migration 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. First, not all Ukrainians are automatically eligible; they need either UK family connections or sponsorship. And second, they must apply for a visa in advance.
How many people have come to the UK under the Ukraine Schemes, and where do they live?
The government releases regular statistics on applications and visa issuances for the family and sponsorship schemes. These show that as of 16 August 2022, the Ukraine Family Scheme, which opened for applications on 4 March 2022, had received 57,700 applications (with one application required per person), with 49,700 visas issued. The Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme (Homes for Ukraine), which opened on 18 March 2022, had received 148,300 applications as of 16 August 2022, with 127,300 visas issued (Figure 4a). This means that as of 16 August 2022, a total of 206,000 applications had been submitted across both schemes, with 177,000 visas issued. However, only 115,200 of these visa holders had actually arrived in the UK as of 15 August 2022: 33,500 under the Family Scheme, and 81,700 under the Sponsorship Scheme. Notably, these figures do not take into account those who applied for visas, received them, entered the UK – but have now returned to Ukraine.
This means that in a period of under six months, more people received protection in the UK under the country’s two main Ukraine Schemes (i.e., 115,000 arrivals), than the total who received protection under the country’s asylum system and refugee resettlement routes in the six years from 2016 to 2021 (Figure 4b).
Statistics are also published on the Extension Scheme, which show that as of 16 August 2022, 14,300 applications had been received, with 9,800 applications granted, and 4,300 awaiting a decision.
The Home Office has also released data on the number of visas issued and arrivals under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme, by the local authority of the individual sponsor’s nominated property (i.e., the property in which the refugee(s) will be hosted). This does not include is the Scottish or Welsh government, which have sponsored some visa applicants. Note that these data are for visa issuances rather than the number of visa holders arriving in the UK. There will be more visa issuances than arrivals, because many visa holders have not yet arrived in the UK.
The data show that at least one person has been sponsored to live in properties in each of the UK’s 374 local authorities. The average local authority has 245 Homes for Ukraine visa holders connected to nominated properties there (Figure 5, UK map). The local authority with the most sponsors’ properties was Buckinghamshire, where 1,526 Homes for Ukraine visa holders’ sponsors had their nominated property. London is a particular hotspot for sponsors’ nominated properties, with around 15,000 visas being issued to individuals whose sponsor’s property is in the capital. This is an average of 458 visa holders across London’s 33 local authorities (its 32 boroughs, plus the City of London), which is 213 more than the local authority average for the UK (Figure 5, London map).
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, which are more reliable than 2020 estimates.)
The Office for National Statistics has also published 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 6). These figures suggest that the existence of diaspora is a good predictor of where Ukrainian refugees will move to in the UK.
What do we know about the people who have come to the UK under the Ukraine Schemes?
The government has published demographic statistics on people who have applied for, been issued, or arrived in the UK on visas under the Ukraine Family Scheme and Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme. The statistics are based on the information provided in visa application forms, and comprise gender and age breakdowns for applicants, visa holders, and arrivals under each scheme (Figure 7).
The data show that the majority of adult visa holders are women (69%), and around two-thirds (64%) are aged 18 to 64. Of adult arrivals, 81% are women, and 92% are aged 18–64.
The Office for National Statistics has also published statistics on Visa holders entering the UK under the Ukraine Humanitarian Schemes. The statistics are based on a sample of over 9,000 people who entered the UK by 15 June 2022 under the Ukraine Family Scheme and Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme. Of all respondents:
- 83% lived in England and 20% in London. This compares with 17% of dispersed asylum seekers who live in the capital, and 5% of resettled refugees.
- 56% said that their preferred language when accessing information in the UK was Ukrainian; and 44% said they could speak a fair amount or are fluent in English.
A follow-up survey based on around 1,100 respondents showed that:
- 42% were employed in the UK, up from 9% in April. Of these 42%, 63% said they had a permanent job, and 25% a temporary job. The most common sectors of work were accommodation or food service (29%), manufacturing (8%), and wholesale and retail trade (8%);
- among adults with their highest level of qualification gained outside of the UK, 43% said employers generally did not recognise their qualifications when applying for jobs (25% did generally recognise them, and 29% said they did not know;
- other major barriers to employment were reported to be respondents’ English language skills not meeting the job requirements (58%), and not being able to find a job that suited their skills (24%).
Can Ukrainian refugees claim asylum in the UK?
Yes – if they can make it to 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 while their claim is pending. People fleeing Ukraine may apply for asylum in the UK if they are not eligible for the Ukraine schemes, for example if they do not have qualifying family members in the UK, or cannot find a sponsor. However, to apply for asylum in the UK, a person must be in the UK; it is not possible to apply from outside the country.
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. Of particular importance is the ability of people to access these routes without being physically present in the UK – as is required for applicants under the normal asylum process.
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 Citizens Resettlement Scheme (ACRS) is free and offers immediate settlement, but it cannot be applied for, and there is no legal route to travel to the UK to seek protection under the ACRS. 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. The Government has not yet said what approach it will take as the expiry of Ukraine scheme visas nears, and whether new arrangements will be introduced to allow people to remain in the UK longer term.
How do the Ukraine schemes compare with other asylum or resettlement routes?
|Standard asylum system, UK||UK’s Ukraine schemes||UK’s Afghan Citizens Resettlement Scheme||UK’s Hong Kong BNO visa||EU temporary protection|
|Eligibility||Anyone, but must apply in the UK. No visa for the specific purpose of coming to the UK to claim asylum, which incentivises 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; or apply as either British Council contractors, GardaWorld contractors, or Chevening alumni.||Those with BNO status or the close family members (partner, child) of someone with BNO status.||Non-EU citizens fleeing Ukraine.|
5,000 in first year up to a maximum of 20,000 in a few years.
(5.4m people estimated to be eligible.)
|Entry visa requirement||No 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 work||For asylum applicants: Generally, no.|
For confirmed refugees: Yes.
|Access to benefits||For 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 settlement||It depends. Some confirmed refugees get five years' permission to stay, after which settlement can be applied for without charge. Other confirmed refugees get two a half years' temporary permission to stay, and may be able apply to settle for without charge after ten years.||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 initially covered work in horticulture, and in late 2021 was expanded temporarily to also include poultry workers, pork butchers, and lorry drivers. The current policy is limited to workers in the horticulture and poultry sectors. 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 8).
Ukrainian workers currently in the UK on seasonal visas have had 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. They would also be eligible to switch to the Extension Scheme. In theory, Ukrainians who are in the UK under one of the Ukraine scheme visas can now conduct seasonal work without requiring sponsorship by an employer, although there are no statistics on the extent to which this has happened in practice. Since many Ukrainians in the UK are women with caring responsibilities, this is expected to reduce their ability to work in rural areas that may not be within easy reach.
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 9).
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 10). 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.
With thanks to CJ McKinney for valuable comments on drafts of this commentary.
This analysis was produced with the support of Trust for London, Research England’s PSF allocation to the University of Oxford, and the Oak Foundation. Trust for London is one of the largest independent charitable foundations in London and supports work that tackles poverty and inequality in the capital. More details at www.trustforlondon.org.uk.