Ukrainian refugees waiting to travel to join relatives in Britain have voiced frustration at the length of time the Home Office is taking to process UK visas, despite government promises to streamline the system.
As the Homes for Ukraine scheme launched on Friday, allowing UK residents to sponsor visas for non-family members, Ukrainians who had already applied to join relatives in Britain under an earlier scheme expressed dismay at the long waits for visa approvals.
At least 43,000 have applied for Ukraine family scheme visas and are waiting for their applications to be approved. Many of them are staying in hotels in countries bordering Ukraine, repeatedly checking their emails to see if visa clearance has been granted.
Taitiana Dembicka, 73, a retired university administrator from Kyiv, has changed hotel in Bucharest six times in the past seven days as she waits for a visa to allow her to travel with her son, Eugene, a British citizen, to his home in the UK. Many of the city’s hotels are crowded with refugees and they have struggled to find somewhere to stay for more than one night.
Her application was submitted two weeks ago, on 4 March. When staff in the office of Eugene’s local MP, Lucy Frazer, asked the Home Office why the process was taking longer than anticipated, they were told that further checks had been requested. “I feel disappointed,” Eugene said. “She has applied previously for a UK visa many, many times, so I’m not clear what they’re actually checking.”
Taitiana said: “We’re told that UK government is helping us, but we don’t feel it.”
Sarah Keeley, an immigration lawyer who has volunteered to offer free legal advice to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict under the Ukraine Advice Project, said she had heard from many people stuck in hotels waiting for visas to be approved. She said the problems were mostly caused by the government’s decision not to waive visas for people travelling from Ukraine. “We are pushing people through a managed migration visa process which necessarily creates these unconscionable delays,” she said.
Natalia, a Scottish university employee, who asked for her surname not to be published, was waiting for her 72-year-old mother’s visa application to be cleared. Her mother fled Kharkiv with just a handbag earlier this month and is stuck in Warsaw until her UK visa, which she applied for a fortnight ago, is processed. “What really infuriates me about this whole situation is not the wait in itself, and not even the significant financial cost, but a total lack of communication and accountability,” Natalia said.
Anna Malyna White, an interpreter from Glasgow, was still waiting for visas for her parents, 84 and 82, to be approved two weeks after they applied. She was staying with them in a hotel outside Budapest. “Everything is done to make this process as difficult and complicated as possible,” she said. “I was advised that my parents should fall into a priority category due to their age and health issues. We are surviving on a credit card as nobody could foresee being drawn into such a complicated red tape visa process. There is no communication with the [Home Office] and there is no mechanism allowing us to track our progress online.”
Figures for the number of people applying to sponsor Ukrainians under the new Homes for Ukraine scheme have not been released.
A Home Office spokesperson said: “We stand shoulder to shoulder with Ukraine and the changes we’ve made to the visa process are making it quicker and simpler for Ukrainians to come here, as well as ensuring those already here can stay. Staff are working seven days a week to process applications as quickly as possible.”