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UK Families of Ukrainians Say "Chaotic" And “Cruel” Refugee Visa Process Could Cost Lives

UK Families of Ukrainians Say 'Chaotic' And “Cruel” Refugee Visa Process Could Cost Lives
12 min read

Ukrainian people attempting to reach the UK through family routes are facing delays and bureaucratic hurdles as they apply for visas.

Chaotic scenes at UK visa processing centers have left hundreds of Ukrainian people stranded in European countries as their relatives warn the "needlessly cruel" system was putting refugees' lives at risk.

The Home Office announced last week it was launching the Ukrainian Family Scheme, which would allow those escaping the country to join their immediate relatives in the UK without the usual language and minimum salary requirements.

Ministers say the system could see tens of thousands of people fleeing the conflict given the opportunity to enter the UK, but families currently working through the process have reported their relatives have been left to battle an under-resourced system which falls significantly short of the protections being offered by other countries.

Charlotte Shevchenko-Knight, a student in London, has been attempting to help her grandparents and aunt reach the UK after they escaped Kyiv in the wake of Russia's assault.

Having spent several nights hiding in their basement, the trio decided to make a break for the border with Poland, but due to the presence of Russian forces in the north of the capital, they had to change their route and head for Romania.

"They left Kyiv on Friday and were luckily able to stop over with some family friends on the way to the border, but their journey had been quite difficult because they ran out of fuel up in the mountains in the snow. There have been a lot of fuel shortages since the invasion,” she told PoliticsHome.

“My auntie had to get out of the car and walk in the snow to a petrol station where they were kind enough to lend her a petrol can so she could get them back on the move.”

After arriving in Romania the family have been able to stay in an AirBnB booked by a relative while they wait for their applications to be processed, but like dozens of others they are facing significant delays, and have now been told they will have to wait until late next week before they can be seen by the UK's visa authorities. Like many others, the family have been told they will each be given individual appointments over multiple days.

"It's just madness, there shouldn't be this kind of administrative nonsense in the middle of a crisis, that is what bothers me," she said.

"We have been really lucky, we had some help from lawyers who have come together and have been offering free advice because I don't think we would have had a clue how to even fill out the forms."

Shevchenko-Knight's grandparents, who are in their early seventies, remain in good spirits, but after enduring days of sheltering from Russian bombs and a difficult journey out the country, she fears it is having an impact on their health.

"When I see them on FaceTime they are waving and smiling but I can see they are tired. They are sleeping on floors, it's cold and there is snow," she said. "I really hate to think of them in that situation and everyone else in that situation. It is just really, really upsetting."

The UK government has argued that it is preferable for Ukraine that its people seek refuge in neighbouring countries rather than come to the UK, as it is believed this makes it more likely they will return home once the war is over. 

Shevchenko-Knight, who used to travel back to Ukraine every summer to celebrate Independence Day, believes most Ukrainians arriving in the UK will return to their homes as soon as possible after the invasion is over and said concerns that tens of thousands of people could settle permanently in the UK if new visa routes were opened were baseless.

"I can't see them wanting to stay. They are not pleased about it, and they just want to be back with their friends, and all the money they have is tied up in their house, and now it's at risk of being destroyed," she said.

"Making the decision to come here is not because they want a little holiday or because they want to start a new life. No one wants to do that. We just need them safe for now until it's okay to go back home.

"A lot of people have this sense of duty not to leave, my aunt's friend, Pasha, was killed on Sunday. He was of Korean descent, but he was very adamant he was Ukrainian and couldn't leave," she added.

"My grandparents for the first few days were refusing to leave and we were saying to them they had to go now and we would make arrangements for them, but they were refusing because they said it was shameful to do that."

Ministers have announced further plans to introduce a new sponsorship scheme to allow people to come to the UK even if they do not have a family connection but are yet to confirm a start date, leading to claims the current response is inadequate.

"It's horrendous, it's really bad. Even the allowances they've made now for people with Ukrainian family is a really tight definition," Shevchenko-Knight added. "It shouldn't be limited to anyone, and you shouldn't have to go to another country's capital to attend an appointment. I think that's insane.

"People are literally fleeing a war, and our system in comparison to [other countries] is just needlessly cruel. I know that sounds awful because my family is eligible to come here and that should be something I am grateful for, but I'm also thinking about all the friends who can't.

She said claims from ministers that visa waivers could not be introduced due to security fears was an "insane way to view people".

"It would save people. I think the delay in even introducing these changes has probably cost lives. It should have been there from day one or day two, instead it took them a week to make announcements," she said.

"On the day they announced they were making these changes I called the visa and immigration office, and the guy on the phone apologised to me profusely and said that he hadn't been trained in anything to do with Ukraine, and they hadn't been briefed on any changes within the office so could give no advice.

"I called the specific number that was put out for people to call if they had family in Ukraine, and this guy told me he hadn't been briefed and [the Home Secretary] shouldn't have made the announcement on TV."

She added: "What the hell is wrong with this country? It shouldn't be this much protocol. Look at Poland, they have taken in so many people with no questions asked and told them they could bring their pets along with them. The difference in treatment is astounding."

Home Secretary Priti Patel has faced mounting criticism over her department's handling of the scheme, with cabinet colleagues reportedly expressing their frustration at the complexity compared to those in other countries where restrictions have largely been lifted.

Sam*, another British national who has already traveled to Poland to help a family member through the process, has witnessed the "chaotic" system up close as he joined hundreds of people at a UK processing site located several miles outside a Polish city.

Initially staffed by just five people, Sam said the system collapsed in the first few days of the crisis as thousands of people attempted to submit applications. Eventually, staff at the center were forced to tell people to leave. Some left for hotels or friend's homes while those who had fled with few possessions were left to try and find accomodation provided by local people.

"People are coming in with one rucksack and the few documents they could find, maybe some food and water but really nothing else," Sam told PoliticsHome. "They have nowhere to go and nowhere to stay, it's obviously very stressful and very difficult for people applying, and I got the impression it was quite difficult and stressful for the embassy staff as well."

Like many others, Sam felt he had to travel to Poland to help guide his relative through the complex process, because despite being educated and speaking some English, he believes they would have struggled to have negotiated the system alone.

"I really don't see how they would have made it all the way to the appointment centre. They wouldn't have been able to submit everything on their phone, and that is someone with some resources and contacts. Even I found it difficult submitting the application," he said.

As part of the process, Sam was required to provide digital copies of Soviet era birth and marriage certificates alongside supporting evidence of the relationship between the family, a process he said would have been impossible without access to computers in their nearby hotel. He said others had been told by UK officials they could still apply even if they had no access to their documents, but said the advice had been confusing and contradictory.

"When people get to the center, why can't we have someone providing assistance or telling people what's going to happen? Maybe just giving them a cup of tea. It's not difficult, it's just about looking after people,” he added.

"We've done our application and now we have to wait for the visa, which we have been told will be five days. But the lady at the processing center said that was five days government time, so who knows what that means?"

Another man who had submitted his application at the same time was told the next available appointment was on 24 March, meaning a potential month-long wait for a decision. 

Some refugees, like Sam's relative, have the support of family who have provided accommodation or traveled to the country to assist them, but he said many others had arrived with few possessions and limited money. One woman at the centre had fled across the border with just a small bag and her cat, another, weeping on the floor, was alone with her five-year-old son.

"We should be coordinating with the Polish to make sure that when people reach the center they are supported locally," he said. "Why can't somebody be there to help them liaise with Polish authorities, to make sure they have some food and clean clothes?"

The complex process increases the risk of people falling through the net, or as Sam warns, could result in people making the decision to return home to Ukraine, putting them back into danger.

"There's a lot of small children, and of course everyone is pressed together so we've got the risk of Covid as well. The temperature in Warsaw is about two degrees and falling to minus seven next week. It's snowing, it's winter here,” he said.

"To be clear, the embassy staff can't fix all this, they can't provide accomodation and the rest, but we must be able to join this up so that those who are most vulnerable, those who don't have friends or family with resources, those who don't have computers and documentation can be supported."

Just 750 visas have so-far been granted by British authorities from an estimated 22,000 applications, but thousands more are expected to apply in the coming days as Russia's attacks intensify.

Matthew Davies, a partner in the immigration team at Wilson Solicitors LLP, who has been helping people fleeing Ukraine to apply for refuge in the UK, agreed the system was overly-bureaucratic.

Like Charlotte's family, he had heard of similar cases where family units had been told they all had to fill out individual applications and were subsequently offered different appointments on different days.

"Let's say you have a family of three: a mother, a parent, and a child. They would each have to fill in a separate application form online, register, visit the website of the private company that is running the visa application center to make their appointment, and then upload their supporting documents," he told PoliticsHome.

"Instead of a lead person completing an application on behalf of their family, people are having to fill in separate application forms, and then deal with two different organisations."

Davies also flagged the complex online process which applicants are first required to fill in, including questions about their previous employment and relationship status. One section of the application asks people to admit if they have previously been involved with terrorism, genocide or crimes against humanity.

Those who are not in possession of their documents, either because they are lost or left behind, will face even greater difficulties in navigating the process.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said the sitatuon had become a "total disgrace" as she claimed Patel had not listened to the "anger and furstration all side."

"The situation for Ukrainian refugees is becoming even more chaotic - this is a total disgrace. It now seems that the Lille visa centre that Ministers promised won’t actually issue visas after all.

"Families can’t even use it for their biometrics unless they’ve already travelled all the way to Calais first - and even then they might still be sent back to Paris instead," she told PoliticsHome.

"Families who have fled a war zone shouldn’t now be sent from pillar to post because Priti Patel still hasn’t sorted things out.

"This is a dreadful way for the Home Secretary to treat people. She doesn’t seem to have listened to the anger and frustration from all sides about the delays and chaos that are letting Ukrainians down in their hour of need.

She added: "This is why we have been calling for more centres and simple emergency visas. The Home Secretary needs urgently to sort this out."

A government spokesperson said: "Last week we announced a new sponsorship route which will allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK to be sponsored to come to the UK.

"This is alongside our Ukraine Family Scheme, which has already seen thousands of people apply, as well as changes to visas so that people can stay in the UK safely.

"The routes we have put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners. This is a rapidly and complex picture and as the situation develops we will continue to keep our support under constant review."

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