Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians poised to enter UK, says minister

UK to support refugees fleeing Russian invasion, says Sajid Javid, but charities warn of visa applications obstacle

Britain could welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees fleeing Ukraine in the next few weeks, the health secretary has said, as refugee charities warned the bureaucracy involved in securing visas was forcing people to wait in dangerous situations.

Sajid Javid said the UK had already issued 9,500 visas to Ukrainians with family ties to the UK, while 150,000 people had expressed in an interested in hosting refugees through the Homes for Ukraine programme.

“I’m pleased that we are supporting Ukraine in every single way that we can, whether that’s military aid, humanitarian aid or indeed providing sanctuary for those that are fleeing Ukraine,” he told LBC. “I expect that we will see hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians arrive here in the UK, and they will get all the support that they need.”

But refugee hosting charities expressed concern about the obstacles posed by the visa application process.

Lauren Scott, the executive director of Refugees at Home, said: “We’re hearing that the visa applications are quite long and difficult to complete, particularly for people who have had to flee their homes and don’t necessarily have access to internet and to the necessary paperwork.

“Many of those fleeing are older people who may not be proficient on the internet, or have smartphones. These are people fleeing war and persecution and we’d like to see existing refugee legislation be used to cover them instead, and the visa requirement waived.”

Ruth McMenamin, who is on sabbatical from her job as a travel company marketing head and has been volunteering at a Warsaw station for the past nine days, agreed. “People are exhausted, they don’t have great English, they’re not leaving their homes with laptops,” she said. She added that volunteers were too overwhelmed to help everyone apply for a visa, or help them understand the process by which they could try to match themselves with people in the UK offering rooms in their homes.

“Many of the people we are seeing are very tired, very vulnerable women and children, and waiting for visas poses very real dangers – they have to sleep on train station floors, in emergency accommodation and there are real risks to their safety.”

One of the first Ukrainian families hoping to come to the UK after fleeing the war-torn city of Kharkivsaid they had experienced multiple problems with the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Olha Haponenko, a university academic, and her nine-year-old son, Petro Syvovol, were hoping to come to the UK after completing the sponsorship paperwork.

They linked up with the UK sponsors Nicki and Adam Patrick, who live in Wiltshire with their 10-year-old daughter, through personal connections.

Both families thought they had filled out all the forms correctly. Haponenko was given an appointment at the UK’s Paris visa-processing centre on Friday because Petro’s Ukrainian passport had expired.

Haponenko said she was shocked to receive an automated response to her application saying visa applications were taking 60 working days to process. The message said: “You will NOT hear from this office again UNLESS we require any additional information from you …”

Home Office sources told the Guardian the email had been sent in error and that the issue was being looked at as a matter of urgency.

Haponenko left Kharkiv soon after the war started and is distraught after having been sent photos of buildings in her neighbourhood destroyed by Russian bombing.

“We tried to sort out the visas on Friday at the Paris UK visa office but we were turned away. We are here again today. Petro understands what is going on. All he wants is to get to the UK safely and to start school,” she said.

The Patricks have organised a school place for Petro at the same village school their daughter attends.

Nicki Patrick said: I want to help in the spirit of “do it, try it, fix it” to make the process easier for others rather than to be moaning about the Home Office at a difficult time.

“I realise we are the test cases in the process, and am sure that it will get easier within days, but if no one brings the reality of the difficulties to their attention, then many families will experience unnecessary additional stress.”

Bridget Young, the director of Naccom, a UK-wide network that supports people seeking asylum, refugees and other migrants experiencing destitution, also expressed concern that the UK was continuing to require refugees to apply for visas.

She said: “There is definitely a disconnect between the government statements and the support of the British public. People have opened their hearts and homes but are starting to get really frustrated with the lack of clarity being provided on how the full scheme will actually work.”


Amelia Gentleman and Diane Taylor

The GuardianTramp

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