‘We just want to be safe’: visa waits and frustration of Ukrainians in Calais

Refugees describe bureaucratic hurdles and uncertainty after exhausting journeys across Europe

Twelve days after witnessing his home in Kharkiv being shelled by Russian forces, Sergei Koletvinov, a London-based van driver, was stopped at the Calais ferry entrance and told he could not take his family into Britain without a visa.

He was turned back at 2.30am on Thursday morning, and spent the rest of the night trying to sleep in his car with his wife, Oxana Lubeinoko, their two-and-a-half year old son, Simon, and their five-year-old daughter, Alissa, while parked outside a temporary Home Office advice centre in the port, turning the engine on occasionally to keep warm. They had consulted friends and Facebook sites and were under the impression that because he has permanent residency in the UK, they would have no problem crossing the border.

A few metres away in the same car park, Svitlana Apanasenko, from Kyiv, who is eight months pregnant and nervous about going into premature labour, was also trying to get some sleep, squashed inside a minibus with seven other people. Her family had been turned back at the border in the early hours as well, halting an already long and stressful journey to safety.

On Thursday, amid international outcry over the UK’s slow and restrictive visa arrangements for Ukrainian refugees, the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced a modest reduction of the red tape involved. From next Tuesday, refugees fleeing the Russian invasion will no longer have to get their fingerprints and photographs done before travelling to the UK, and will be able to complete the application once they have arrived in Britain. The announcement followed an earlier incremental expansion of the Ukraine family visa scheme on Tuesday, extending it from immediate family to cousins, aunts, uncles and in-laws of UK-based relatives.

Ukrainian passports
Amnesty International has criticised the UK government’s incremental easing of the visa process as ‘too little, too late’. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

However, these tweaks to an exacting bureaucratic process were criticised by Amnesty International as “too little, too late, and yet more evidence of the Home Office’s corrosively anti-refugee attitude”.

“The process is still full of red tape, with desperate and exhausted people still being required to provide birth certificates, proof of relationships and residence, and with everything still needing to be translated into English,” said Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International UK’s chief executive, as he called for a full visa waiver.

Because they will only begin next week, the changes offered little comfort to the hundreds of refugees currently stuck in northern France while they try to get appointments in UK visa application centres in Paris, or across the border in Belgium, before facing a wait of up to five days to see if their application is approved.

Throughout Wednesday night and Thursday morning, Ukrainian refugees continued to be turned away at the UK border at the Calais ferry port. By 11am, Koletvinov had been seen by some Home Office staff, and was waiting to be taken by bus to Lille with his family to submit biometric data for the visa at a temporary centre. No one was able to tell him how long the application process might take. The family had eaten nothing since Wednesday except for Kit Kats offered by UK border officials.

“This has been the worst time of my life,” he said, grey-faced and trembling from exhaustion, scrolling through messages on his phone, showing images of the ruined buildings near his block of flats, every window blown out. He said he was too tired to feel anger at the unexpected bureaucracy preventing the family from crossing the Channel. Koletvinov, who has been working in the UK for eight years, spending a few weeks a year with his wife and children in Ukraine, was with his family when the Russian attack began; they took just 15 minutes to pack up and leave.

Sergei Koletvinov, Oxana, Simon and Alissa
‘This has been the worst time of my life’: Sergei Koletvinov with his wife, Oxana, and his children, Simon and Alissa. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

He said the uncertainty over when or whether they would be granted visas was hard to process. “We still don’t know what’s happening,” he said. His children busied themselves with colouring books and crayons on the floor of the port building, climbing over and under the waiting room’s metal seats, oblivious to their parents’ unease. He plans to rent a bigger flat in London and find better-paid work to support his family. “We’re not asking for anything; we just want to be safe,” he said.

Alla Berliuta, an assistant at a care home in Southampton, had spent the last week driving with her husband, Andrii, an alarm fitter, who like her has permanent residency in the UK, to rescue relatives from a town just outside Kyiv. She collected her heavily pregnant sister, Svitlana Apanasenko, her 15-year-old niece, a sister-in-law, a brother-in-law and a two-year-old nephew, from the border with Moldova, but they were forced to reroute via Romania to visit a UK visa application centre there and be fingerprinted.

The hurdles required to secure a UK visa have slowed them down and heightened the stressfulness of the experience. “No one understands the visa system. It’s so new and we were given different advice at different times. My brain feels a bit boiled by everything. I’ve been so worried about my sister because her pregnancy has been very complicated and she needs a caesarean,” Berliuta said. She was also worried that the visa-related delays to the journey would put her care-worker job at risk, although she said that her employers, Allied Healthcare, had been very understanding.

Because the family had already visited the visa appointment centre in Romania, Home Office staff were able to finalise their visas, and they were able to board a ferry to the UK early on Thursday afternoon. Elsewhere in Calais, however, other Ukrainian families were still waiting.

The French interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has accused Britain of being “a bit inhumane” and urged ministers to “stop the technocratic nitpicking”, a stance that was echoed by several refugees.

“The response has been far too slow and far too complicated,” Taras Bednarchuk said, furious to have been turned away from the Eurotunnel by UK Border Force staff. He and his brother Misha, both of whom are long-term UK residents and work in construction, had driven to Warsaw to collect their 17-year-old brother, who had been studying software engineering in Ternopil in Ukraine before fleeing; they had not realised he would need a visa.

Vera Pitchuk
‘I hope everything will be fine. We have already been through a lot,’ says Vera Pitchuk. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Vera Pitchuk, who has been working as a cleaner in London for the past six months, had collected her two sons, five and nine, from Ukraine, where they were being looked after by their grandmother, and brought them to Calais by coach from Poland. Her family and 10 other refugees were taken off the coach at the UK passport control at the ferry port because they had no visas. They had been obliged to travel from Calais back to Paris to submit an application there on Wednesday and were waiting to hear if they would be granted entry; it was not clear whether she was eligible for the family scheme, which does not apply to workers on short-term visas.

“I hope everything will be fine. We have already been through a lot,” she said.

A new visa application centre will be opened on Friday in Arras, 70 miles east of Calais, the Home Office announced, in order to keep refugees away from the port city. “To support those people in Calais who are eligible for the scheme, we have worked closely with the French to set up a new, larger temporary visa application centre in Arras for referrals only,” a spokesperson said.

Officials said that more than 1,000 UK visas had now been granted in centres across Europe. The UN estimates that more than 2 million people have fled Ukraine.


Amelia Gentleman in Calais

The GuardianTramp

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