Politics

Calls grow for Ukraine-style visa scheme allowing Turkey and Syria earthquake victims to reunite with family in UK

The Home Office has been branded "heartless" for saying it has no plans for a bespoke visa route, as politicians pile on the pressure

Turkey Visa

Emergency workers on a collapsed building in Gaziantep, Turkey. Image: EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid/Flickr

Campaigners and politicians are calling on the government to open a visa route allowing victims of the Turkey and Syria earthquakes to reunite with family in the UK.

Inspired by the Ukraine Family Scheme, which allowed those fleeing Russia’s invasion to join family members in the UK, the Lib Dems have asked home secretary Suella Braverman to implement a similar route.

As well as claiming over 47,000 lives, the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria have left millions homeless, displaced, and in need of urgent help.

But the campaigners face an uphill battle. The Home Office has already privately rejected calls for a bespoke route, saying it has no plans to create one as those affected are able to relocate within Turkey. When asked by The Big Issue whether the government was looking into creating the route, it said existing visa routes remained available.

Layla Moran, the Lib Dems’ foreign affairs spokesperson said: “The Conservative government urgently needs to step up in the wake of this profound tragedy that has affected millions.

“The last two weeks have been a hugely difficult time for the diaspora here in the UK who have been desperately trying to find out what has happened to their family and friends in Turkey and Syria. 

“The UK government must do what it can to help reunite families, by setting up a visa sponsorship scheme, so people with relatives in the UK can get the support they need.”

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Over 80,000 people have signed a petition calling for the scheme. The petition has been waiting 14 days for a government response, after it hit 10,000 signatures.

Labour MP Kate Osamor was among those to back the petition, posting on Twitter that constituents had contacted her saying family members in Turkey had been made homeless and needed urgent help.

The department said those affected by the earthquake were able to relocate within Turkey, in response to Yasar Dogan, a London-based solicitor who had written to the home secretary on February 13 asking for the scheme to be established.

“Many close family members of those affected by the earthquake are keen to host their family members here in the United Kingdom until the circumstances in the affected region will improve again,” Dogan wrote, adding his firm, Redstone Solicitors, had received “countless enquiries” about whether those living in Britain could temporarily host family members caught up in the disaster.

In a letter dated February 20, seen by The Big Issue, a Home Office official wrote: “Currently we have no plans to create a new bespoke route for family members of British citizens affected by the earthquake in Turkey and Syria.

“Those affected by the earthquake are able to relocate safely within Turkey and the UK is providing aid to help those displaced.”

The letter added that the Home Office would consider “expediting” specific “compassionate or compelling cases”, such as medical emergencies.

“I am sure that many UK residents with affected family members would feel disappointed and let down. The tragedy here is nothing short of the one in Ukraine, where the government did the right thing and offered protection to those affected,” Dogan told The Big Issue, of the Home Office’s response.

“Many people feel guilty for sleeping in their warm beds, when their family members are out in the cold.”

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This refusal, Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael told The Big Issue, was “heartless”.

“What a heartless response. The humanitarian aid Conservative government has offered is just a drop in the bucket given the scale of the disaster in Turkey and Syria,” Carmichael said.

“Just last year, the government operated a similar visa scheme for Ukrainians, with successful results – and they have totally failed to explain why the same cannot be done now. 

In the wake of the earthquakes, Germany introduced a visa scheme allowing earthquake victims to stay with relatives, calling it “emergency aid”.

The Ukraine Family Scheme was launched within days of Russia’s invasion, and allowed British nationals and those settled in the UK to bring relatives to the UK without fees.

However, its roll-out was dogged by issues as those trying to bring family members over complained of administrative chaos and confusion. A year on, homeless charity Crisis has warned that many of those who came to the UK under the scheme receive no financial support from the government, putting them at risk of homelessness.

A government spokesperson told The Big Issue: “Following the devastating earthquakes across Turkey and Syria, the UK has playing a leading role in providing life-saving support. We have deployed emergency search and rescue teams to find survivors, set up a field hospital with expert UK medics and sent thousands of blankets and tents – as well as significant funding for the UN and NGOs as they help communities to recover.

“We are continuing to support British nationals with relatives impacted by the horrific natural disaster in Turkey and Syria. Where family members do not have a current UK visa, they can apply for one of our standard visa routes, which remain available, and applications can be submitted at the nearest Visa Application Centre.”

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