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Drawing on a new report, Michaela Benson and Nando Sigona explore the expansion of ‘safe and legal humanitarian protections’ via the introduction of schemes for Hong Kongers and Ukrainians, highlighting the differences between the various schemes and the UK asylum system more widely.  

One of the most notable recent changes to the UK’s immigration controls has been its approach to asylum and humanitarian protections. On the one hand, the past few years have seen the introduction of measures that present new barriers for those seeking asylum in the UK. This is most marked in the policy and legislation aiming to ‘stop the boats’, including the highly-publicised Rwanda deportation scheme.

On the other hand, since 2021 there has been an unprecedented expansion in the suite of ‘safe and legal (humanitarian) protections’ via the introduction of bespoke humanitarian routes for the people of Hong Kong (from 31 January 2021) and Ukraine (from March 2022).

Our new report, produced as part of the Rebordering Britain and Britons after Brexit (MIGZEN) project, considers how these bespoke humanitarian protections measure up to one another and compare to the protections provided through the UK’s asylum regime.

Expanding ‘safe and legal (humanitarian) protections’

The UK government’s suite of ‘safe and legal (humanitarian) protections’ include community sponsorship and mandate resettlement schemes such as those for Afghan and Syrian refugees.

Until the introduction of the Hong Kong and Ukraine schemes, the numbers of beneficiaries of such protections were low. However, the introduction and uptake of the Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukraine visa schemes demonstrates a significant shift in scale and scope. Since 2015, there have been 533,449 beneficiaries of such protections. With no caps on the numbers of those entering the UK through the Hong Kong and Ukraine schemes, the total number of beneficiaries of such protections includes an more than 324,000 Hong Kongers and Ukrainians.

This contrasts to the 50,169 beneficiaries of the Afghan and Syrian resettlement schemes where eligibility was limited and where there were caps on the total numbers of people the UK was prepared to welcome through these schemes.

Together, the Hong Kong and Ukraine schemes evidence the government’s priority, first laid out in the New Plan for Immigration – the policy paper published in 2021 outlining forthcoming changes to the UK’s migration regime – to expand and strengthen the UK’s provision of ‘safe and legal routes’.

These flagship schemes are additional to the asylum regime and are presented as evidence of the UK’s continuing commitment to defending human rights and providing humanitarian protections.

These schemes are all included under the umbrella of humanitarian protections. Yet eligibility and the rights pertaining to beneficiaries varies substantially between them. The terms of residence in the UK offered by each of the schemes also varies.

The Hong Kong BN(O) Visa was introduced on 31 January 2021 as a humanitarian visa for those eligible for British National Overseas (BN(O)) status seeking to leave Hong Kong. It was introduced following the UK government’s judgement that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ solution had been breached by the imposition of a wide-ranging national security law. Since then, 135,400 Hong Kongers have moved to the UK, while a further 30,000+ have taken advantage of the possibility of applying for this status from within the UK.

Within the suite of protections mentioned above, the Hong Kong BN(O) scheme is exceptional as potential beneficiaries must pay for the protections they receive from the British state. Both the fee and what the visa offers more closely resemble the UK’s ancestry visas than other forms of humanitarian protections. To be eligible, applicants must cover their visa fees, including the Immigration Health Surcharge.

Whilst they are not required to prove a minimum or guaranteed income, they must demonstrate that they can accommodate and support themselves in the UK for six months. The visa permits them the right to live, work and study in the UK, but unlike beneficiaries of the UK’s other humanitarian protections or refugee status, they have limited or no access to welfare support.

The UK’s Ukraine visa schemes – Homes for Ukraine, the Ukraine Family Scheme, and the Ukraine Extension Scheme – emerged in response to the large-scale displacement brought about by Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. People need to apply for a visa in advance of travelling to the UK and eligibility depends on either UK family connections or sponsorship. To date, 188,900 people have arrived and settled in the UK.

Modelled on community sponsorship schemes, access to housing is baked in. Beneficiaries gain, inter alia, the immediate right to work and access to certain welfare benefits. Importantly, these are temporary protections, time-limited to 3 years. In contrast with those holding Hong Kong BN(O) visas, the Ukraine schemes more closely resemble those offered to those with refugee status. But they do not offer a route to long-term settlement, unlike those with refugee status, or to those moving to the UK through the Afghan resettlement scheme.

Contrary to the government’s portrayal of these visas as robust forms of protection, the report outlines their limitations.

Differentiated humanitarian protections

The differences between the schemes in terms of the protections and rights they offer contrast with those offered through the UK’s asylum regime. All those whose asylum claims are successful and are granted refugee status have a route to settlement as after five years, those with refugee status can apply for indefinite leave to remain. They also have access to public services and healthcare, access to work and welfare benefits.

The explicit discrimination by nationality of these different humanitarian protections is a marked departure from the international protections for refugees laid out in the 1951 Refugee Convention, which was designed to offer refuge to individuals regardless of their nationality.

Further, as the comparison above demonstrates, those in the UK as beneficiaries of these humanitarian visas cannot call on the same protections or rights as one another. These differences in turn have led to beneficiaries of these schemes facing significant challenges in their everyday lives. For Hong Kongers, we found these to include included difficulties in accessing suitable housing upon arrival, particularly for those seeking rental accommodation, limited access to public funds, and a lack of recognition of their professional qualifications.

For Ukrainians, whose visas were time-limited with no route to settlement, a prevailing sense of temporariness and uncertainty underscored the challenges they faced, leaving them feeling protected but lacking certain rights.

Simply put, the government’s turn towards ad hoc humanitarian protections schemes should not be seen as an alternative to the provision of asylum enshrined in the Refugee Convention, but at most as complementary. As we demonstrate in our study, even the ‘generous’ Hong Kong BN(O) and Ukraine schemes, while providing a degree of protection to their beneficiaries, fall short of offering comprehensive safeguards akin to those built into the UK’s asylum system.

By Michaela Benson, Professor in Public Sociology, University of Lancaster, and Nando Sigona, Professor of International Migration and Forced Displacement, University of Birmingham.

You can access the full report ‘Humanitarian visas in a hostile environment’ here.

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