Palestinians: Visa Scheme Debate

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Palestinians: Visa Scheme

Olivia Blake Excerpts
Monday 13th May 2024

(2 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake (Sheffield, Hallam) (Lab)
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I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith) for the diligent way in which she started the debate and highlighted many of the issues. I point the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, which shows that I received help in this area from the Refugee, Asylum and Migration Policy project. I am also the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on migration.

That thousands of people have signed the petition that triggered this debate should be a sign to everyone here that there is significant support and compassion for those who are fleeing the violence and destruction of war, and for welcoming refugees into our communities. We saw the same with Ukraine, with people opening their homes and the reunification of families meaning so much to people. I have raised questions about schemes for other conflicts, such as Sudan. The Home Office’s approach is seemingly case by case, but the underlying policy is simply not fit for purpose for those who are fleeing from war and persecution.

With Ukraine, the Government rightly responded by waiving all fees, salary thresholds and language tests under the Ukraine family scheme. That programme opened applications to all civilians in need, and it significantly reduced the visa paperwork. Those who could not reach a visa application centre were swiftly issued with permission-to-travel letters on the basis that applicants could finish the process in the UK. The Government also extended the use of the “UK Immigration: ID Check” app to Ukrainian nationals, which allowed applicants to enrol digitally with their biometrics using a mobile phone. Those measures demonstrate what can be done when the public support for those trapped in conflict meets the political will that something can be done in Westminster, showing that there are solutions to the challenges that we will no doubt hear about from the Minister shortly.

However, despite the mass support for the family scheme for Palestinians, we have seen no action from Ministers on Gaza. In fact, not only have the Government refused to implement a similar scheme, they will not even waive the fees or relax the biometric requirements for making a standard immigration application. I would like to use this opportunity to ask the Minister: whose crisis counts? What is the difference between a Palestinian fleeing the bombs overhead in Gaza and a Ukrainian doing the same in Kyiv? In his response about whether the Government would consider introducing a similar family scheme for those in Gaza, the Minister stated:

“In any humanitarian situation, the UK must consider its resettlement approach in the round, rather than on a crisis-by-crisis basis.”—[Official Report, 15 April 2024; Vol. 748, c. 14.]

The inaction of Ministers suggests that they have not considered their approach at all, let alone “in the round”.

People in Gaza with family members in the UK remain trapped, with no safe or viable routes to reunite with their families. Without a specific family route, they can rely only on existing routes, such as family visas or skilled worker dependent visas, but to make those applications is nearly impossible. The closest and most viable visa application centre is in Egypt, on the other side of the Rafah crossing, which we have heard is currently under assault and for some days now has been completely closed. I understand that it is possible to apply for deferral to biometric enrolment requirements, which I am sure the Minister will say, but could he please tell us how many of those deferrals have actually been granted? Is the number still standing at zero? Given the unparalleled threat to civilian life in Gaza and the UK’s historic involvement in Palestine, it is hard to understand why the British Government have not simply adopted the approach they took in Ukraine. To the people out there, it looks completely wrong.

It would also be wrong of me not to stress that, rather than ad-hoc schemes for individual crises and countries, a solution would be to lift the Government’s in-practice ban on asylum applications. We need more safe routes and more safe passage to the UK for people facing war and conflict, the majority of whom are children, have injuries or have family here. In the absence of either safe routes or safe passage visas, it is time that the Government did the bare minimum and introduced an emergency family reunion scheme for those seeking shelter from the bombing and the crisis in Gaza.

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Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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If I may, I want to come to that point in full later in my remarks, because there are various related aspects that I think are important to address fully. The arrangements are important and I know that they are of real interest to colleagues.

To finish my wider point that is important contextually, we now need to see all the various points that I raised in my introductory remarks turned into action to ensure that aid gets over the border and is safely and properly distributed. We look to Israel to meet its commitments to flood Gaza with aid. Turning now to the real substance of the debate—

Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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Will the Minister give way?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I will gladly give way, but I am conscious that there is quite a lot to get through.

--- Later in debate ---
Olivia Blake Portrait Olivia Blake
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Does the Minister accept that food on the border is of no aid to those who are starving, and medicine on the border cannot heal those who need it, and that not being able to guarantee the safety of civilians is essentially the reason that we need this scheme urgently?

Tom Pursglove Portrait Tom Pursglove
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I would argue that the principal, most important thing is to have a durable ceasefire that brings an end to the hostilities, and one that is durable in the long term. That is the best outcome for everybody in the region, but the House will recognise why that is impossible with Hamas in charge in Gaza. We continue, as a Government, to make these arguments, and we will continue to make the argument that it is imperative that that aid is able to flow in order to properly support people.

Let me turn to the substance of this debate. It is the case that we are assisting British nationals and other eligible people to leave Gaza, liaising closely with the Israeli and Egyptian authorities. However, we do not control the Rafah border crossing, and it is the Israeli and Egyptian authorities that make the final decisions on who can exit Gaza. We are aware of the unique circumstances affecting those who would like to exit Gaza, and the unusual role of foreign Governments in seeking permission to leave on behalf of individuals. The FCDO has, therefore, been able to facilitate the departure from Gaza to Egypt of Palestinians who have both strong links to the UK, by having either a spouse or children under 18 currently living in the UK, and currently hold valid permission to enter or remain for longer than six months.