A visa centre being set up in northern France to assist Ukrainian refugees will not offer appointments or walk-in access, and its exact location will not be made public, the Home Office has confirmed.
Earlier, a Downing Street spokesman told reporters the centre in Lille would “start accepting appointments” from Thursday, but that has been contradicted by a statement released by the Home Office.
“We have taken urgent action to process visas at speed for all those eligible to the Ukraine Family Scheme, while carrying out vital security checks,” it said.
“We have protected appointments at all of our visa application centres to ensure there is sufficient capacity and deployed extra staff to help people through the process as quickly as possible.
“In light of the risk from criminals actively operating in the area around Calais, we have set up a new temporary Visa Application Centre in Lille which will open tomorrow focused on referrals only for people in the area eligible for the scheme.”
On Tuesday, Home Secretary Priti Patel announced a “bespoke visa application centre” was “en route to Calais”, but said it would be set up away from the town to prevent “choke points” around the port.
Hundreds of Ukrainian refugees trying to get to the UK have turned up at Calais over the past few days but most have been told to go to Paris or Brussels.
It then emerged on Tuesday evening another centre would be based in Lille, more than 70 miles away from Calais.
Sky News understands access to the centre will be reserved for Ukrainians who arrive in Calais and are deemed the most vulnerable by UK officials stationed at the French port town.
• Children buried under rubble after hospital hit by airstrike in Mariupol, says President Zelenskyy
• No-fly zone is needed to avert humanitarian catastrophe, says Ukraine’s leader
• UK will not escalate the conflict ‘in a way that would be unacceptable’ to the world, transport minister says
• Tributes to ‘hero’ actor Pasha Lee who died during Russian shelling of Irpin
• First Lady Olena Zelenska writes open letter condemning Putin and ‘mass murder of civilians’
• Ex-Miss Ukraine describes how she fled Kyiv with seven-year-old son
Backlash shows many believe visa centre capacity nowhere near enough
Two days ago the home secretary told MPs a new visa processing centre was being set up near Calais to assist Ukrainians desperately seeking visas.
Priti Patel said it would be setup “away from the port” to prevent “choke points”. Yesterday, it was confirmed the location selected was in fact Lille – a town more than 70 miles away from Calais.
Now it has emerged it will be a ‘pop up’ centre, which will not take walk-in applications or appointments, and its address will not be made public.
I’m told this is all a result of the speed at which the centre is being setup, and the fact capacity is being boosted elsewhere at the same time.
Officials insist it will be running properly tomorrow and will be focused on serving those who turn up in Calais and are deemed the most vulnerable.
But the backlash we’ve seen already makes clear many MPs and charities believe this is nowhere near enough.
Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper criticised the government’s position in a social media post: “Good grief. Why is Priti Patel not sorting this out?
“Do people now have to go all the way to Calais before they can – maybe – be sent back to Lille? This is making it harder not easier for desperate Ukrainian families.”
The Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman also expressed concern about the Home Office handling of the visa process for refugees.
Rob Behrens said: “It is vital the Home Office acts to correct failings in its handling of visa applications, especially failings we have previously reported and which we are seeing repeated here”
“In this horrendous situation swift action is needed to make sure the process of getting a visa is simple, accessible and quick. Lives depend on it.”
Earlier Transport Secretary Grant Shapps defended the government’s decision to setup the temporary centre away from Calais, saying: “We do not want to see this mixed up with the wider issue of people traffickers and criminal gangs in Calais, so we don’t want to attract people to Calais without having the paperwork resolved in the first place before they get there.”