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"Boris Johnson Is Leaving My Family To Die": Ukrainians Fear Time Is Running Out For The UK To Ease Refugee Rules

Ukrainians are desperately trying to flee the country as Russian forces advance

10 min read

Ukrainians fleeing from Russia's invasion have called on the government to act quickly to save people's lives as fighting intensifies.

Petr, a Ukrainian national currently studying at a British university, fears he may never see his family again. Both his older brother and uncle have been drafted into help defend against Russia's invasion while the rest of his family have hunkered down in Kyiv's subway system as volley after volley of Russian bombs and missiles are launched indiscriminately into the country's capital.

"My uncle is a small man. His favourite things to do are read books and grow flowers so the thought of him picking up a gun and shooting at makes me want to laugh and to cry. This should not be happening. I want to be there with them, but my mother has refused to let me come back," Petr tells PoliticsHome.

His mother, aunt, and teenage cousin remain trapped in the capital and he's desperate for the British government to change the rules to allow them to escape and join him in England.

"They speak perfect English, they are hard workers, why should the [British government] deny them safety? They love Ukraine, and if they left they would want to go back as soon as it was safe," he adds. "My uncle and brother will not be allowed to leave, so of course my family would return. All we need is for them to be allowed to get away for a few weeks or months and be safe."

Some relief has come from the community around him who have reached out to offer support, advice and endless cups of tea as he receives hourly updates from his family to let him know they are still safe. That community spirit, he believes, is one that is disconnected from the decisions being made in Westminster.

On Thursday, senior Tory Damian Green told PoliticsHome's podcast The Rundown that Home Secretary Priti Patel needs to publish plans to allow Ukrainians without family ties in the UK to come here as soon as possibe, as the existing policy “doesn't cut it”. 

The UK has softened its policy on granting visas to Ukrainians wishing to settle in the UK, but it only applies to those with close family ties to the country. The EU has waived visa requirements for Ukrainians entirely for three years. 

"I don't think the government knows what the British people are thinking. So many people have asked me how they can help or take people into their homes. I think half of Kyiv would find a home in the UK in a single day. People here are very kind and they know my country is innocent and don't deserve this," says Petr.

With Russia's continued advance, Petr fears the routes for escape towards the border are rapidly closing, becoming more dangerous with each passing day.

"They can't leave without knowing where they can go. Poland is full. I know many people are stuck for a long time trying to get out. My aunt has an illness and they can't take the risk of leaving their home without knowing they have a safe destination to reach."

Because Petr is on a student visa, his family are unable to make use of any of the current visa routes that are open to those wanting to come to the UK and he is desperately calling on ministers to bring in a new humanitarian visa which would allow more people to travel.

"How can there be no humanitarian route to come here? We know what is happening there. We see the pictures and the films. Putin is trying to exterminate our people and they won't let people in?

"I have already written a letter to Boris Johnson because I want to know why he is leaving my family to die. Yes, they give weapons and yes they are doing sanctions, but innocent people are dying in Ukraine right now, this very second."

Harvey Butters and his girlfriend Sonya have found themselves in an equally difficult position. Having lived in Kyiv in recent years, Butters, a British national, had only returned to the UK last month to begin working and preparing the foundations for Sonya to apply for a partner visa so she can join him permanently in the UK.

When Russia's invasion began, Sonya was just two days away from making a planned trip to the UK to celebrate Harvey's birthday. Her flight was immediately canceled, but she hoped her tourist visa which had already been granted would offer her a route to safety.

"Her mum took her to the train station straightaway in the morning but there were no trains so she had to get a bus," Butters told PoliticsHome. "The bus took four hours just to get out of Kyiv and overall it took about 25 hours to get to Warsaw."

Sonya was forced to leave behind her mother, a history teacher at a local school, her 85-year-old grandmother and her school-age brother. For the last week, her brother and grandmother have stayed sheltered in their family home while an increasing barrage of Russian attacks hit the capital.

"I am really worried about them and their safety because the Russian's number one aim is to take the capital, to overthrow the government, to swap our government for their Russian propaganda one, which we are totally against," she says.

"That is why I am scared of them being in danger. My brother has not been outside for a week and neither has my nan. It is getting tough, every day for them is like a year.

"My nan doesn't have a passport so she can't go to the UK. But I know in Poland they are letting people in without a passport, but it is also tough because we have a hamster in our flat, and we have a cat."

Having arrived on a tourist visa, Sonya is currently only allowed to stay in the UK until it expires in June, and they feared she could be forced to leave after just 30 days because of time limit restrictions. After seeking legal advice, and because of a rule change announced by the government earlier this week, they believe she will now be able to remain for the full six months.

Sonya, who was at the top of her university class where she was studying languages with the aim of working as a translator, is now stuck in limbo. While on a tourist visa she is not allowed to work, has no access to free medical care, and if she overstays on her visa, she could risk legal problems when she later applies for a permanent visa.

"I can't exist like a normal citizen, so that is what worries me a lot and I don't know what the situation is going to be in Ukraine... I want the government to allow refugees in, so I could have refugee status or they could allow me to change my visa to the longer-lasting visa.

"It is awful for me staying here and not being able to do anything, not working or able to study or anything."

She added: "I would like the government to change their views of refugees. I know [humanitarian visas] are still not a thing, so I would like them to change this opinion, because people are sitting in shelters, civilians are getting killed and if they knew there were more countries that would accept them then they would leave their houses and it would save their lives."

According to Home Office guidance, Ukrainians already in the UK on a tourist visa will be granted a "temporary concession" to switch into a points-based route or family visa. But those applying will still have to pay the associated fees, and could still be rejected if they fail to reach the "requirements" for a new visa.

For the young couple, only in their early-twenties, Putin's assault on Ukraine has upended their lives. They now fear that Sonya's family in Kyiv will struggle to escape, or meet up with her sister who lives in the south of the country.

"I do not know how they are going to find each other. Everyone is separated by the war," she says.

"On Wednesday I had plans to do my diploma work, my mum was going to the school where she works as a history teacher, and my brother is also in school. My sister would go to the music academy where she studies the violin.

"We just got up in the morning and cooked food, we had plans, just like other normal humans and then in one day everything changes. No one has an education, no one can go to work anymore, and no one knows what is happening.

"I am really worried about them, and hopefully they will change their mind about staying in Kyiv and find transport and maybe go to Poland or any other country which is not Ukraine."

Even for British people trying to leave, the journey has been arduous and dangerous. Gavin Guest, a teacher at the British International School in Kyiv spent three days waiting at the border with his colleague Rebecca and their two dogs, Eli and Lucas.

Having begun his journey to the border just days before Russia launched its invasion, Guest found himself unable to leave, with only a small number of women with very young children allowed through.

"We got to the border on Thursday night and it was pandemonium. It was chaotic. We arrived at 3pm and tried to go through but they refused every single male, no males were allowed through," he says.

Even the arrival of a British team sent from the UK's embassy in Poland was not enough to convince the border guards who only eventually relented after the Ukrainian people "rallied" around them in the following days.

"We have been waiting behind and then all of a sudden the local Ukrainian people just rallied for us and then about five minutes later they told us to come forward and they moved a barrier for us and let us through," he said. "We couldn't believe it."

The kindness of strangers has been a recurring theme throughout their journey. They were put up by a Ukrainian family for two nights as they waited to cross the border, and as soon as they arrived in Romania, another family was already waiting to offer them a place to stay.

"I want to emphasise the strength, resilience, resolve and pure determination of the Ukrainian people we met," Guest adds. We have been helped every step of the way by the Ukrainian people, even those waiting to cross themselves. Everyone is helping everyone here, and we have seen the best of both the Ukrainian and Romanian people."

Guest's trip back to the UK is continuing as he travels by car and train across Europe, but he hopes he will soon be able to get into the UK provided he can get the paperwork sorted for his rescue dog, Eli, who he adopted just seven months ago.

"The journey is ongoing," he says. "We finally got across the border because of some really good fortune and kindness.

"We are still being helped just now. We will be forever grateful."

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