Palestinians: Visa Scheme — [Martin Vickers in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall am 5:00 pm ar 13 Mai 2024.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Llafur, Blackburn 5:00, 13 Mai 2024

Five hundred and sixty-seven of my constituents in Blackburn have signed the petition that led to this debate, and I am grateful for their continued efforts and support to raise awareness of this devastating situation. Over 34,000 Palestinians have now been killed since 7 October. Sadly, that includes 14,500 children. Over 78,000 people are injured and more than 8,000 are missing, presumably dead under the rubble. A catastrophic humanitarian crisis continues to unfold.

There are people at risk of serious harm, including from indiscriminate violence in armed conflict. Can they claim asylum in the UK? No, because they must be physically present to do so. The Government highlight the availability of safe and legal routes to get here, namely refugee resettlement programmes, refugee family reunion visas and nationality-specific humanitarian visa schemes. However, there seems to be a reluctance to recognise that these are very rarely available to Palestinians as they are currently ineligible for refugee resettlement in the UK, and a refugee family reunion visa depends on their having a sponsor already granted asylum.

This is a very emotional subject for me, because every day on the television I see people starving. They have no water, food or medicine, and it seems that no one actually cares. Mainstream visa options are often insufficient. Palestinians with immediate family in the UK can apply for a standard family visa, but that requires family ties to the UK, which many do not have. My hon. Friend Jess Phillips raised the issue of children who have lost their families and have nobody to look after them, sponsor them or get them here.

Sponsored work or study visas are not designed for humanitarian purposes, and the associated costs and practical requirements are often prohibitive. Visitor visas are often refused by the Home Office, which is less likely to accept visitors who may claim asylum in the UK, despite the devastation that is happening in Palestine. In 2023, the Home Office refused around one in three visitor visa applications from Palestinians. With the visa application centre in Gaza also closed, people face great practical difficulty in even lodging a visa application.

Existing visa options are simply insufficient in this case, and the Government know that. We know that they know this, because they widened the scope of the visa regime for Ukrainian citizens and their family members following criticism at the time that the system was not working. It was not working and they fixed it. Members will recall that British citizens and permanent residents were enabled to sponsor a much wider range of family members for a visa than is generally permitted, and those sponsored could bring their immediate family. The requirements to attend a visa application centre were also waived, and it would be good if that happened in Palestine.

I am aware of the Government’s response to the e-petition in December 2023, in which they said there were “no plans” to introduce a special visa scheme for Palestinians, and I ask the Minister why. I wrote to the Home Office in November seeking advice on the Government’s plans to support refugees from Gaza, and specifically asking whether his Department intends to implement a scheme similar to the recent Homes for Ukraine.

Calls for such a scheme have been growing for months. As I said, every day children are dying while we sit back and watch, and we need to act urgently. Lancashire Council of Mosques, which is based in my constituency, wrote to its members at the end of last year seeking views on its proposal to welcome orphaned Gazan children to Lancashire. Everybody knows that Lancashire is a very welcoming place, with caring and loving families who are willing to open their homes and hearts to these children. I was heartened by the generosity of that offer, which is testament to the compassion and humanity of the Blackburn community. In January, however, I received a disappointing response to my letter from the Government to the same effect.

There is no safe area in Gaza. A Rafah offensive must not go ahead, and the UK Government must do everything in their power to make sure that it does not happen. That includes immediately halting the sale of all weapons to Israel and helping with delivery of aid. Only today, on social media, I saw settlers totally destroying a delivery of aid, laughing and cheering as they did it. It is sad—it is sad that as human beings, we can stand back, watch that and not do enough to put a stop to it. We need to work towards securing an immediate and permanent ceasefire. I ask the Minister: where do the Government expect thousands of displaced Palestinians to go? Does he actually care?

Building on the precedent set by the Homes for Ukraine programme and other nationality-specific schemes that have been established previously, the UK Government now have an opportunity to extend compassion and solidarity towards the people of Palestine, and I urge them to do so urgently.