Londoner Kay Simmons wanted to sponsor Ukrainian refugees to help them escape the horrors of the relentless Russian invasion. So she immediately offered help when her Ukrainian former babysitter, who had moved back to Kyiv a while back, was in desperate need of a UK sponsor.
Kay filled out all the forms to get “Helena” to the UK and submitted her visa application on March 18th, the day the Homes for Ukraine scheme officially opened.
But now Kay believes that the UK government’s red tape might actually be the death of Helena, who didn’t want to use her real name, as it is preventing her from reaching the safety of her home in north London.
“I am desperate. I spoke to her yesterday. She escaped from Kyiv to another town and has now returned to Kyiv as that town is now also under bombardment,” said Kay. “She was in total blackout conditions, terrified, crying. I feel she is emotionally very fragile. She has not slept for a very long time as the sirens go off constantly.
“I feel totally hopeless and helpless. I really haven’t slept, having spoken to her last night…. If I don’t get her out soon, it may be too late. She’s very, very precarious.”
Only 4,700 visas issued
Many Ukrainians like Helena who are looking for safety are, at least temporarily, forced to flee to other cities in Ukraine until they get a visa to enter the UK. Many cannot afford renting a hotel or hostel in a foreign “third” country, and some – especially those with children – are worried about taking refuge in refugee camps or communal shelters abroad, where violence and sex trafficking are often commonplace.
As many refugees wait weeks and weeks to obtain visas through Homes for Ukraine, their sponsors are questioning the validity of the scheme, which has become such a bureaucratic nightmare that some say it is purposefully designed to deny UK entrance to as many people as possible.
So far, only 4,700 visas have been issued under the programme, which has received more than 32,000 visa applications, according to the most recent data provided by GOV.UK. Another 200,000 people in the UK have signed up to be sponsors, offering their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the war for a minimum of six months. Sponsors get £350 a month, while local Councils receive an annual payment of £10,000.
The latest person to be fed up is the UK’s minister for refugees, Richard Harrington, who on Sunday promised that refugees under the scheme would have to wait no more than two days to get a visa, and that he would expedite the processing of more than 15,000 applications per week.
He criticised the programme for taking “far too long” to carry out checks on both refugees and sponsors, saying in particular that he was working with Home Secretary Priti Patel to cut down the 51-page visa application.
But his words appear to be just that: words. In fact, even refugees who are now safely in the UK may not be allowed to remain here for long.
David Law, a retired CEO of a community NHS trust, is now sharing his home in Muswell Hill with a family of six from the Ukrainian town of Smila, about 200 kilometres from Kyiv.
“They managed to come into the country with tourist visas as they have family here, but they could stay with them as there would be six of them in one room. I cannot get them on the Homes for Ukraine scheme as they are already here,” said Law, 61.
“The options they are facing, unless the rules change, is they have to get out of the country and come back in to get visas. It’s ridiculous. Our MP has forwarded their situation on to [Communities Secretary] Michael Gove but we have not heard anything back yet.
“I am worried about them leaving, probably more worried than they are as I have seen how difficult it is to get a visa approved. It is such a long-winded process. I feel so angry and helpless at the same time about this because the government just is not moving.”
Scheme “is a mess”
“The whole scheme is a mess,” Labour MP Darren Jones wrote yesterday in an email to a constituent. “The team in the home office are overwhelmed and the IT system has had so many problems. My staff have been on hold for over two hours trying to speak to someone. MPs – cross party – are raising it but Parliament is now in recess.”
Things have become so bad that MP Catherine West has personally promised to chase up with the Home Office all applications that face delay. “Sadly, I’m still hearing from constituents who have signed up to the scheme and are desperate to help but are experiencing Home Office visa delays,” she wrote on her website yesterday.
“This is an issue Labour has repeatedly raised in Parliament, it is shameful that people in desperate need are being forced to jump through these bureaucratic hoops. We are the only country in Europe not to offer a simple sanctuary route.”
The UK Accommodation for Ukrainian Refugees Facebook Group, which has 49,900 members, has been trying valiantly to give out advice to both sponsors and refugees. “It is a Priti mess that the Home Office have got us in! The words ‘piss-up’, ‘incapable’ and ‘brewery’ come to mind. No overall organisation or coordinated approach,” wrote sponsor Stewart M.
“Why oh why couldn’t the visa requirement be waived for Ukrainian people with international passport and UK-named sponsor? Like Poland, we should be admitting such people and then checking everything after they arrive at their sponsor’s address. Simples! Rant over.”
The Homes for Ukraine website, for its part, is still trying to attract people to become sponsors, although there are more sponsors than refugees, and giving the latter false hope.
“We have a long history of helping others in their hour of need and the Homes for Ukraine Scheme offers a lifeline to those forced to flee their homes,” the website says.
“The UK is one of the most generous nations in the world,” it says. Now “the British public are now being asked to go one step further and open their homes to those fleeing the war in Ukraine”. But until the government changes its tune, most of those homes will remain shut.