Ukrainian Refugees Facing Homelessness Are Abandoning The UK's "Shambolic" Visa Scheme
Desperate Ukrainian refugees say they are facing homelessness after some have been left waiting over a month for Home Office approval to travel to the UK.
Sponsors of Ukrainian refugees have expressed frustration that hundreds of cases from the early stages of the scheme are still waiting to be processed, with some families who have already fled Ukraine either choosing to return, facing homelessness in third countries, or relying on financial support from their sponsors in the UK.
More than two million Ukrainians have crossed the country’s western border into Poland, including many of those hoping to secure visas to the UK, either because they already have family here or have matched with a UK sponsor willing to provide them with accomodation.
Those who have arrived in Poland or traveled onward to other European countries have left Ukraine with few possessions and little money, and many are not eligible to work while in transit to the UK, leaving them at increased risk of homelessness as they wait for permission to travel.
On Thursday, Labour MP Ellie Reeves raised the delays in the Commons after one of her constituents said the Ukrainian woman and her three year old son who they were sponsoring had been forced to return to Ukraine because they had lost access to temporary accomodation in Poland.
Having applied on 25 March, the family had not received any updates on their case and were forced to return to Ukraine last Sunday when they were made homeless due to a lack of accomodation in Poland.
The MP said that since returning to Ukraine, the young boy had developed a virus, but was forced to spend up to five hours each day in a bomb shelter with his mother to avoid Russian airstrikes.
Reeves told PoliticsHome it was "absolutely appalling" that the family felt they had been forced to return to Ukraine because of the delay.
"The design and management of this means that lives are now being put at risk and we are failing to help vulnerable families in their hour of need," she said.
"The government must match the generosity and compassion of the British public and cut the unnecessary bureaucracy, provide clear guidance and get desperate Ukrainian families to safety."
PoliticsHome reported last week that hundreds of civil servants had been drafted from across other Whitehall departments to try and clear the backlog of cases, leading to fewer staff available to provide updates to those still waiting for cases.
But shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said there were still 25,000 applications still outstanding despite British sponsors waiting to rehome them – including her own.
“We’re stuck in the same vortex as everyone else,” she told PoliticsHome. “You can understand the frustration that people are facing.”
Cooper said she had already matched with a family and was now waiting for their visas to be granted.
"It is shocking that there are still delays with the Homes for Ukraine visas,” she continued.
“This scheme started very many weeks ago and yet people are still stuck in limbo. 25,000 people are still waiting for a visa even though there are homes here ready for them, waiting for them,” she said.
Cooper also raised issues with permission to travel letters, an additional document that is required to enter the UK, and is provided to refugees after they have received their visas.
Sponsors have warned that even after visas have been granted, some refugees have been left waiting several weeks before their permission to travel documents are sent through, leading to further delays in reaching the UK.
"Only a very small proportion of those who have supposedly been granted visas are actually managing to make it here,” Cooper added.
“There's also long delays – and we don't understand why – between issuing visas and giving people permission to travel. Why is that taking longer?”
Cooper described the current situation as “shameful and shambolic,” and warned that refugees are being left in a highly precarious situation while they wait to be able to travel.
“It means you have people who are becoming homeless, people who are running out of money, who are in temporary accommodation,” she explained.
“But it also means that there are people who are still in Ukraine who didn't dare travel until their visas came through, whose lives are at risk as well. The way the Home Office is still delaying this and Priti Patel's complete failure to get a grip on this is just shameful and shambolic."
One group of sponsors have compiled a list, seen by PoliticsHome, of over 500 applications submitted in the first days of the scheme which are yet to receive updates, including some which were submitted over five weeks ago.
Earlier this month Refugee minister Lord Harrington promised refugees and their sponsors that the "streamlined" process was aiming for a 48-hour turnaround, but sponsors accused the department of "lying" to them as they continued to press for information on their cases.
“The Home Office is outright lying to us because when we eventually get to speak to a human being they have promised us updates within 24-48 hours, but they never come,” one sponsor, who has been waiting more than a month for an update, told PoliticsHome.
“Our family is struggling hugely as a result, and their mental health has taken a serious hit. They can’t reconcile the Prime Minister’s words about support for Ukraine with their experience,” they said.
“We have spent well over £1,000 on hotels, AirBnBs, food and clothes to try and keep them safe while they wait.
“I’m devastated, but I understand their worries, and they are talking about applying for a visa elsewhere or even returning to Ukraine because they need some stability and certainty.”
Another sponsor, Helen, said the family she had applied for had now decided to remain in Germany because they could not afford to wait for the UK scheme and hoped that applying for the German scheme would allow them to find work so they could pay for accomodation.
Helen said the family had chosen to apply for the UK scheme because they spoke fairly good English, but felt they were forced to drop out and stay in Germany despite not speaking the language.
"We are devastated. I had become emotionally invested in this family," she said. "They had become our family. I have no words. I feel utterly helpless."
The Home Office has been approached for comment.
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