One of the most immediate consequences of conflicts and crisis is often displacement, as people seek safety. The crisis in Ukraine means substantial numbers of people may flee the country to seek refuge overseas.
It’s difficult to predict how many Ukrainians will seek asylum in the UK. This will depend on a number of important and unpredictable factors such as the scale, duration and humanitarian consequences of the conflict.
There is no visa for people of any nationality to travel to the UK to make a claim for asylum, so Ukrainians who wanted to do this would generally need to enter through irregular (and sometimes dangerous) means. Some civil society organisations have called on the UK government to offer a resettlement scheme to Ukrainian refugees, as it did for Afghan citizens in August 2021 and Syrians in 2015.
In general, people displaced in conflicts tend to move relatively small distances, to other parts of the country or to immediately neighbouring countries. In 2020, Ukraine had nearly three-quarters of a million internally displaced people, mainly due to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the seizure of parts of eastern Ukraine in 2014.
Typically, most people seeking asylum who make it to Europe remain there, and do not then travel on to the UK. Over the past decade, more than 90% of asylum applications in the EU and the UK have been in EU27 countries: the UK share has fluctuated between 3-8%. Several EU countries have large Ukrainian diasporas and are thus likely be primary destinations. Poland issues hundreds of thousands of residence permits every year to Ukrainian citizens, and the estimated number of Ukrainian national residents exceeds 100,000 in Czechia, Germany, Italy and Spain.
According to ONS estimates, there were around 38,000 Ukrainian-born residents living in the UK in 2019. This is a relatively small number – more than 50 other countries had larger foreign-born populations in the UK in that period.
Perhaps counterintuitively, it is possible that the conflict could lead not to more Ukrainians coming to the UK, but fewer. This is because over the past two years, Ukraine has quietly become one of the largest countries of origin for work visa holders in the UK. New data released by the Home Office showed that in 2021, Ukrainians were the second most common nationality -– after Indians -– to be granted work visas to come to the UK.
This is largely because of the seasonal workers visa. After the Brexit referendum, farmers started to complain about labour shortages as fewer workers 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 reintroduced a work visa scheme for seasonal workers. The scheme covers work in horticulture, and in late 2021 was temporarily expanded to include poultry workers, pork butchers and HGV drivers. Ukrainians have been by far the biggest users of this route, which admitted nearly 30,000 people in 2021.
Indeed, Ukraine supplied more than two thirds of the seasonal workers who stepped in to replace the EU labour force in the UK in 2021. The previous year, when the scheme was being piloted in the UK, the share was even more –- 87% of seasonal workers were from Ukraine
With the UK’s visa services in Ukraine now suspended, it is clear that recruitment that usually takes place in Ukraine is unlikely to continue as normal. Ukrainian workers currently in the UK on seasonal visas will have their visas 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.
Asylum seeking and labour migration are not the only way that Ukrainian nationals might come to the UK. An unknown number of British citizens live in Ukraine, often with Ukrainian family members. Over the last few days, the UK government made concessions to allow Ukrainian residents who are family members of British citizens to come to the UK more quickly and cheaply. It is also being reported that the minimum income requirement that people would normally need to meet to get a family visa is being waived.
At the time of writing, it is not yet clear whether measures will be introduced to help others who are eligible for UK residence, such as family members of EU citizens who live in the UK and have status under the EU Settlement Scheme. In other cases, family members (like most adult dependent relatives) are not eligible for visas. Uncertainty remains about what the rules will be for family members who are admitted temporarily but do not meet the criteria to renew their visas further down the line.
The government has also begun taking steps to address the immigration status of Ukrainian residents who are already in the UK on temporary visas and may not be able to return home when their status expires. At the end of 2020, there were an estimated 9,600 Ukrainian citizens in the UK with temporary visas, primarily as temporary workers, skilled workers and students. This number will have increased due to the expansion of the seasonal agricultural worker route described above, and also does not include tourists and other visitors.
It’s important to keep this in context. The consequences of the Ukrainian crisis for UK migration are just a small part of the troubling events that are unfolding as we write, and that are already having serious humanitarian, economic and geopolitical repercussions across the world. But within the world of UK migration policy, there are nonetheless some meaningful implications.
Rob McNeil, Researcher, Centre on Migration Policy and Society (COMPAS), Deputy Director, Migration Observatory, University of Oxford and Madeleine Sumption, Director, Migration Observatory, University of Oxford