PHOTO: Omar Marques/Getty Images
British people trying to host Ukrainians fleeing the war have complained of a “shambolic” system, constantly shifting messaging, never-ending bureaucracy and extreme slowness in offering visas that has left refugees stuck in limbo in refugee camps and hostels across Europe .Jane Finlay has a cough, something she thinks she’s caught on the long drives and night stays that she’s since lost count of. She drove over 1,100 miles from London to Poland, where she waited at the border with Ukraine for Nadiia, her sister, their two daughters and a dog. She is one of the tens of thousands of Brits who have volunteered to host refugees as part of the UK’s Home for Ukraine scheme. Fearing that Nadiia and her family might end up in the hands of traffickers, Finlay drove out to meet them, and personally bring them back to her home in Richmond, south-west London. “I wanted her to feel safe,” she said.
But now, weeks later, they’re all stuck at Calais because the UK still hasn’t granted them visas.“The whole system has been shambolic from start to finish,” Finlay says. “There wasn’t any availability to upload anything in Cyrillic. They were asking people to prove they were in Ukraine in January, and then they wanted these documents translated into English. They were asking girls to get permission from their parents to travel, and that translated into English too. This catalogue, it goes on.”Government forms ask minors if they are travelling with both their parents, if they can provide consent from both parents or guardians to apply and if not, why not. One evening, Finlay spent eleven hours trying to help Nadiia process it all. One of the family members also doesn't have a biometric passport, and when they tried to sort it out in Poland, all the slots at the visa application centre were full. The UK then directed them to go to Berlin, where the centre there told them they’d never heard of the scheme. And then there’s the dog. “It’s a nine page form, impossible to understand for an English speaker. The German vet also didn’t understand it. Like everything else, they were PDF forms that you can’t edit and save - so we had to print them off. What refugee carries a printer?”
The Home Office is yet to publish data on how many refugees have arrived for the Home for Ukraine scheme, though 100,000 UK residents have signed up for it. 3.9 million refugees have fled to the countries bordering Ukraine, and that 30,000 have already been able to reach France and over 239,000 have reached Germany. On 25th March, the Home Office said 20,100 Ukraine Family Scheme visas had been issued. This is separate from the Government’s Home for Ukraine scheme, which allows Brits to open up their homes to complete strangers. Instead, the family scheme allows relatives of British nationals to come to or stay in the UK.
For Finlay, the situation has become more complicated. She is worried by new rules that came in on 25th March, seven days after they first filed their applications. Before, Nadiia and her family could arrive before the visas had been issued; now, the Government says it will not issue visas until police have checked out the host families and their homes. “You need deep pockets to do this,” she says. She thinks everything from car hire to flights, meals and hotels has so far cost £5,000. “We’ve done everything correctly. If they want to do police checks on us, we’ll put them up in a hotel in the UK until we’re told they can come to us. Not everyone can do that.”That is precisely Irinka Muneva’s problem, who has been trying to bring her mother, sister and daughter to Maidstone as part of the Ukraine Family Scheme.
They arrived in Budapest on 8th of March, where Muneva said there were no volunteers to help them when they arrived at the bus station, unsure of what their next steps would be, because it was 9pm and the volunteers left at 8. They managed to file the applications, but weeks later are stuck moving between rooms in hotels and hostels. Muneva has now paid over £600 for their accommodation.
The local visa application centre has told them that their application has been issued, but that they’ve received no emails from the Home Office on the progress of their application. “Even if you call the UKVI helpline, the answer from them is you have to wait all the time, we don’t know how long, and we don’t have any telephone number where you can check what is going on. It’s so much more difficult than the news is showing. And the helpline is not free - I pay 69p a minute. I asked them if they can give me some time schedule for when I might get an email and the answer was ‘No, have a good day’ and they hung up. It was not very kind of them. Everyone is stressed, but everyone has to be human.” Another UK resident, Katerina Veide, is lucky in that she has not had to put her mother who left Ukraine up in hotels in Poland, where she crossed the border point; Veide has been able to stay with her mother with Polish friends of a friend who offered to host them. “I cannot believe my luck,” she says, “those people are amazing to us.” But now on unpaid leave from work, she is worried how long this wait might go on for.
In an email to the Home Office, she wrote that it felt like there was no progress in sight for her mother, who is 65 and has heart problems, despite the fact that Veide has settled status in the UK and even received her mother a few years ago on a visitor’s visa. “I am glued to my phone all day and night,” she wrote, “updating my inbox and trying to convince my job that I have done everything I can to speed up this process and that I am not lying.” A day later, she received a reply to her complaint from a government visa official, “I am unable to provide you with information about Ms Lyubov Krapivnyuk unless you can provide a signed letter of authority, signed by Ms Lyubov Krapvnyuk which confirms that you are authorised to act on her behalf.” A Government spokesperson said: “We are moving as quickly as possible to ensure that those fleeing horrific persecution in Ukraine can find safety in the UK through the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine.“We have streamlined the process so valid passport holders do not have to attend in-person appointments before arriving in the UK, simplified our forms and boosted caseworker numbers, while ensuring vital security checks are carried out.“We continue to speed up visa processing across both schemes, with more than 21,000 issued under the Ukraine Family Scheme.”Six hours after VICE World News contacted the Home Office, Katerina Veide received an entry clearance email, meaning that their families can now fly to the UK.Irinka Muneva also received notification that her passports were ready for collection but that she will need to go to the visa office very day to check if the visas are ready for collection.