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Thursday, February 9, 2023

“A maze of red tape” and visa chaos— inside the UK’s Homes for Ukraine fiasco

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Elsa De Jager, 37, can think of little else. Like millions across the world, the hotel director and her partner Angus Collins were horrified by Vladimir Putin’s reign of terror on innocent Ukrainian people and wanted to help, so they signed up to host a refugee at their spacious home in Wandsworth.

They registered for the Government’s Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme on the day it opened (March 18) and signed up to a Facebook group which pairs hosts with refugees, matching with an English teacher called Yana, 32, and her daughter Alisa, four, who are currently terrified and hiding in a bomb shelter in western Ukraine.

It’s been almost three weeks since mother-of-two De Jager matched with Yana, whose husband is preparing to fight on the frontline while she and her daughter wait for visas to come to the UK. De Jager has been speaking to them daily since they matched, sickened by the horrors the pair are going through in their home country. But as each day passes, she can’t help but find herself equally sickened by her own country’s response to the growing refugee crisis.

Despite writing to her MP three times, calling a dozen times and spending hours on the phone to the Homes for Ukraine helpline each day, she’s heard nothing about the status of Yana and Alisa’s visa application in the 19 days since they applied, despite others who applied for visas later than them having theirs approved. There are now concerns that a government “data loss” may have occurred for the cohort who applied for visas in the first few days of the scheme, sparking fears many refugees will become homeless whilst they wait.

“The whole thing has been completely shambolic and frankly a disgrace — the hardest bit is the thought of something happening to Yana and her daughter while they’re in Ukraine when they could have been safe in our home,” De Jager tells me, calling the application process “borderline farcical” compared to other Nato countries where refugees are being welcomed without visas in a bid to get them to safety first. If the data loss rumours are true, should she apply again? Should she keep waiting? Does she drive out to the border? In the meantime, she wakes up every day fearing for Yana and Alisa’s lives.

De Jager is far from the only sponsor beside herself with anger and frustration over the Government’s handling of the process for Ukrainians fleeing the war. While many EU countries immediately threw their borders open to the 10 million Ukrainians escaping the Russian invasion last month, the British Government was slower off the mark, only offering sanctuary to those with family members in the UK before opening its Homes for Ukraine scheme for those with sponsorship in mid-March.

Elsa De Jager and Angus Collins have offered to host a Ukrainian mother and her daughter at their home in Wandsworth

/ Elsa De Jager and Angus Collins

Since then, more than 200,000 British individuals and organisations have enlisted to accommodate a Ukrainian refugee, yet just 4,700 (less than 15 per cent) of Ukrainian visas have been approved. So far, only 500 Ukrainians (1.6 per cent of the 32,000 who applied) have actually made it to the UK via this sponsorship route, branded a “complex web”, a “maze of red tape” and a “gimmick” by charities accusing the Government of giving “false hope” and “causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians”. A “chaotic” matching scheme, “complex” application process as well as visa “bottlenecks” and backlogs are among the litany of reasons being cited for this distress so far.

Refugees minister Lord Harrington has admitted visa processing times are currently “far too slow” and a Government spokesman has acknowledged that progress approving visas has “not been good enough”. Lord Harrington says his team is working on streamlining the application process and the Government says Ukrainian passport holders can now apply online and do their biometrics checks once in the UK.

But many charities, including the Red Cross and Save The Children, say it is too little too late and are now urgently calling on ministers to follow the EU’s lead and waive visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees altogether as a short-term measure. Poland, Ukraine’s closest ally, has received more than a million refugees since the start of the conflict; Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, has accepted more than 82,000; Germany and France have both taken in thousands; and more than 2,200 have already arrived in Ireland. Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper said the latest numbers revealed “shamefully slow progress on Ukrainian refugees”, while Sonya Sceats — chief executive of the charity Freedom From Torture — has described Britain’s figures as “woeful” by comparison and called on the Government to “cut the red tape”.

Ukrainian refugee Yana, 32, and her daughter Alisa, four, have been waiting for three weeks to have their UK visas accepted

/ Elsa De Jager

“Trying to get in touch with the UK visa office is like screaming into a void,” says Olena Said, one of tens of thousands caught up in a growing backlog of Ukrainian refugees waiting for their visas to be issued before they can come to Britain. Kateryna Shcheglova, a Ukrainian refugee currently in temporary accommodation in Germany, tells me she and her 81-year-old mother — who was born amid the bombing of Kyiv in the Second World War — will be forced to return to the shelling in the capital city if their visas don’t come through soon.

Many British hosts are concerned that their offers will now be wasted, with estimates suggesting that if processing continues at its current rate, some refugees won’t receive their visas until June. “I am really afraid for [my Ukrainian friend] Kristina and for all the people who have been forced to flee their homes under such terrible circumstances,” says Rend Platings, a host from Cambridge, who went on hunger strike last Friday to protest the Government’s slow visa processing times.

With reports of families getting sick, starving and under constant threat of attack inside Ukraine and at its borders, there are fears that many refugees don’t have that long to wait. Many are now hours or days away from being evicted from temporary accommodation in Ukraine or in neighbouring countries, and there are fears that vulnerable people — particularly women and children — will be exploited by human traffickers.

Trying to get in touch with the UK visa office is like screaming into a void

“[Michael] Gove and [Priti] Patel want all the glory, but let’s be clear: this is a DIY matching process,” says Jacqui McIntosh, 59, a resource manager from Staffordshire who is one of thousands of British hosts who found a Ukrainian to sponsor over Facebook. Until this week, the “chaotic” system required Ukrainians without relatives in the UK to find themselves a British sponsor willing to house them, forcing those fleeing the war to “sell themselves” online via social media and other informal sites in a desperate bid to find a home.

All sponsors must go through security checks before a visa is issued, but while sponsorship offers like McIntosh’s are genuine, recent weeks saw growing safety fears that this “DIY” initiative risked Homes for Ukraine becoming “Tinder for sex traffickers”. “We are already aware of people with illegal motives who are advertising on social media,” says Louise Calvey, head of safeguarding at Refugee Action. The charity Positive Action in Housing echoed this, saying it had received reports from young women fleeing the war who claimed they had been contacted by registered Homes for Ukraine UK sponsors expecting sex in return for rooms.

The Government insists the scheme was “designed specifically to have safeguards in place — including robust security and background checks on all sponsors, both by the Home Office and councils”. Michael Gove’s Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC) has now given an initial grant of £300,000 towards a more formal pairing service set up by refugee charity Reset, but many believe it is too late. “Precious time has already been wasted,” says Lisa Nandy, the shadow levelling up secretary, this week. “More needs to be done to help refugees in urgent need, including cutting unnecessary bureaucracy. The Government cannot go on wasting the amazing generosity of people who have stepped up and offered to open their homes.”

More than four million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its war, according to the UN refugee agency (PA)

/ PA Wire

Among this “unnecessary bureaucracy” criticised by Nandy is a visa application process many have called “tortuous”, “confusing” and “not fit for purpose”. After matching with a sponsor, Ukrainians must complete a 51-page visa application form online, with questions such as ‘are you a war criminal?’. De Jager says this process is an “identity theft nightmare” for UK hosts like her, who have been expected to send valuable documents like passport details to Ukrainians they’ve never met. She’s already heard countless stories of kind-hearted British sponsors being scammed.

The application forms are also “shambolic” for Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are living in unsafe parts of Ukraine without phone signal or battery, De Jager continues. The form she had to talk Yana through was “messy”, “faulty” and “barely understandable by a British person, let alone someone who doesn’t have English as their first language”. Emilie Radley, 29, a sponsor living in Battersea says the application process is a “complete disaster” while Alistair Parr, 37, a sponsor in Kingston, calls it “borderline farcical”. “There’s lots of ambiguity in the process, conflicting information on the same webpage, and it’s not entirely clear if you’ve actually submitted everything successfully,” he says. Lord Harrington says he and Home Secretary Priti Patel are working on getting the application form reduced.

De Jager and Parr’s refugees have been lucky compared to some fleeing the war — they have passports. But for Ukrainians who do not have identity documents with them, often the most vulnerable, they must then travel to a visa application centre (VAC) to fill in a detailed application form in person. In Poland, for example, it’s a 90-minute drive from the refugee reception centre to the nearest British VAC — and there is no public transport. Some say they have still had their visa applications rejected. “We were told on the helpline that his lack of a Ukrainian passport wouldn’t be a problem… but his application was rejected due to him not having a Ukrainian passport,” says Heather Brown*, who is sponsoring a young man who fled to Ukraine from Syria 10 years ago after the war there. “It seems that in the scheme’s eyes, some refugees are more equal than others.”

Does the Government recognise that the visa process is causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians?

But despite tens of thousands of refugees managing to complete this “complex” process in often desperate conditions, very few have had their visas accepted and been allowed to come to the UK. This is despite Lord Harrington previously telling MPs he expected “thousands” of Ukrainians to arrive within the first week of the scheme’s launch, setting a target of 15,000 visas a week. “Does the Government recognise that the visa process is causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians who have experienced cumulative losses, pervasive existential terror and mass bereavements, and are now increasingly at risk?” crossbench peer Baroness Finlay of Llandaff asked last week.

It is reportedly taking an average of a week for a typical Ukrainian mother and child to have their application approved, with many waiting far longer. Lord Harrington says he wants to reduce this to 48 hours, admitting that the process has been “far too slow”. The Home Office has also confirmed that DBS checks for hosts taking in under-18s will be expedited and completed within a few days. But many say the damage to Britain’s reputation has already been done.

“I came across two cars desperately wanting to travel back to the UK with [Ukrainian] people who have passed the visa process… they’re going back empty — that just about sums up the process,” British volunteer Nick Hills, 47, tearfully explained from the Poland-Ukraine border last week in a video that has now been viewed thousands of times. The father-of-two described the heartbreaking scenes he witnessed over several days there: British cars driving back empty because there was no UK border force desk or government representation whatsoever on the ground; meanwhile daily coach-loads of visa-less Ukrainians were being sent back to other Nato countries like Italy and Sweden, where the paperwork would be done on arrival. “There’s no reason the UK couldn’t be doing the same,” he says.

British volunteer Nick Hills on the Poland-Ukraine border

/ Nick Hills

Hills’ moving clip points to a common criticism of the Government’s response: that other countries are simply doing better. This week, shadow business secretary Jonathan Reynolds said the UK had “not yet met the scale of the challenge” of taking in Ukrainians compared to other Nato countries. “These are levels of movements of people in Europe that we haven’t seen for decades,” he told Sky News. “And when you see what other countries are coping with, and doing, it’s hard to say that as of yet we have met the scale of that challenge.”

Last week, the minister for children and families, Will Quince, admitted that the number of Ukrainians to have made it to the UK via the sponsorship route was “relatively low”. Recent days have seen a slow trickle of re-homing ‘success stories’, including a family of 10 from Kharkiv who moved into a house in Cambridgeshire last month. But even for hosts who have been successful like John Rutherford in south London, the thick layer of government bureaucracy has been frustrating at best. The refugee now living in his spare room, a telecoms exec called Nataliia Shynhyrii, almost didn’t come here with her two children because she’d heard that Britain wasn’t exactly throwing its arms open to refugees. It took Rutherford, a semi-retired human resources manager — not the Government — to persuade her she was welcome.

“To hell with success stories — the real story is failings, bureaucracy, disorganisation, tardiness and lack of communication,” says Simon Brownson*, one of more than 47,000 members of a Facebook group called ‘UK accommodation for Ukrainian refugees’ set up since the war. The group was set up for British people to share advice on sponsorship, but it has quickly turned into a catalogue of horror stories about the process. “Ashamed to be British”, “lost for words” and “brought to tears in frustration” are some of the most common feelings being cited by the group’s members to describe the Government’s “inhumane” and “shambolic” visa process.

We’re facing the humiliating prospect of the huge generosity of the British public going unmatched, due to Home Office bureaucracy

Indeed, despite tens of thousands managing to navigate the “chaotic” matching process and “complex” application, the biggest frustration of all seems to be with the one part out of public hands: the visa-issuing itself. “We’re not going as fast as we’d like on processing the visas,” a source in the DLUHC admitted last month, with another government source saying there was “panic” within Government that many offers of spare rooms will be wasted. “We’re facing the humiliating prospect of the huge generosity of the British public going unmatched, due to Home Office bureaucracy,” the source said last week.

The Home Office says it is now processing 2,000 visas a day and that its officials are working around the clock to get visas processed, but many disagree that visas should be being issued at all. “Asking for visas from people fleeing war is unethical, inhumane and against all civil rights,” says designer Daniel Daka, 40, a sponsor from London whose Ukrainian friend applied for her visa 18 days ago — and, like many, is still waiting. “My friend in Ukraine is alone and waiting for her email to come through, her mental condition is already scarred and she feels refused by the UK. Her father died yesterday, her mother is trapped in Donetsk, bombs are falling and we are asking her to wait. I am speechless. The Home Office silence is killing us.”

Many recognise that a visa system is necessary for safeguarding purposes. All UK households receiving guests from Ukraine must currently receive checks by the local council and basic DBS checks are undertaken on all adult household members before a visa is issued. “It wouldn’t be beyond Putin to put Russian saboteurs into groups of people fleeing the country, and I think it is reasonable the UK would want to carry out some checks,” says Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who is set to host three generations of a family from Kyiv and admits the delays can be “frustrating”. But many don’t believe the current visa processing system is fit for purpose. Among horror stories shared by British sponsors are reports of emails and phone calls going unanswered for close to three weeks; applications being rejected for reasons including hosts having heaters in individual rooms rather than central heating; and no confirmation email even when a visa is eventually issued, meaning it may as well not have been issued at all.

Alistair Parr

“Compared to the fast, efficient process our European neighbours have put together to handle this crisis, I’m embarrassed to be British,” says Parr, who spent up to eight hours on the phone to the Government’s helpline each day for 14 days before he heard that his matched refugee Anastasiia had had her visa accepted. “She is one email from the Government away from a safe, warm, welcoming home — but instead has to live a perilous existence in a warzone,” he told me the day before they found out.

Parr was one of many UK sponsors worried that the practical efforts he’d put into sponsorship would be wasted. He and his fiancée Lucy spent more than £1,700 refurbishing their spare room for Anastasiia, and De Jager moved her daughter out of her bedroom especially. But financial investment aside, what she, Parr and thousands of others have found much more challenging is the emotional investment they’ve already made. “It’s a special kind of insanity,” London sponsor Jack* says of the pressure on hosts as individuals to “coach traumatised refugees through an uncertain, slow, bureaucracy” like the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Our Ukrainian friend is one email from the Government away from a safe, warm, welcoming home — but instead has to live a perilous existence in a warzone… I’m embarrassed to be British

The majority of British sponsors I speak to agree. “We are completely in the dark — they could be approved today or they could be left waiting for months,” says Northamptonshire teacher Robert Smith, who applied to sponsor Ukrainian couple Max and Darina on March 18. “I’m so scared that we’re going to end up letting her down because the Home Office can’t handle the situation competently,” says Bedford-based musical theatre performer Bethany Taylor, 30, who is sponsoring her friend Olena, currently hiding in a shelter in Ukraine .“How do I tell the lady who I’m waiting to sponsor who is relying on me that I don’t have a clue when she will get a visa?” asks Teresa Valente, 48, a former solicitor offering her spare room in Lincolnshire. “How do I tell her that when, mid-message she says she has to get off the phone as the sirens are sounding and she needs to get underground?”

Bethany Taylor

In response, digital innovation consultants Nigel Collier and David Logan built their own matching site, uksponsors.com, in three days to help streamline and safeguard the matching process. Why couldn’t skilled workers like them from the private sector have been brought in more formally to join the refugee processing effort? After all, processing visas is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the paperwork that’ll be needed for Ukrainian refugees coming to Britain, says Collier. “The people are going to be here for six months minimum, how are they going to find places at schools, get jobs and live this new life?”

De Jager agrees. She’s passionate about helping Yana and Alisa live a new life here, but she worries about their future if the current visa processing rates are an indication of what’s to come. “It’s been completely shambolic,” she says of the Homes for Ukraine scheme so far. Adding that the generosity of the British public has been heartwarming — but it’s a shame that’s been overshadowed by delays, bottlenecks and incompetence. “The way we have handled the Ukrainian refugee crisis will be a stain on Britain’s conscience for years to come,” she sighs. “Are we really happy to be remembered like that in the history books?”

*Names have been changed to protect identities

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