UK visa scheme leaves Ukraine refugees trapped in precarious limbo

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For Nastya Melnychenko, the bungled start of the UK’s programme for admitting Ukrainian refugees led her on a treacherous journey back to the home she fled only weeks before — in search of documents.

She and one of her two sons have received UK visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme set up by the government as a response to the worst refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war. But her other son’s application, submitted at the same time six weeks ago, is still pending.

She was led to believe that the biometric data she had provided at a visa application centre in Warsaw had gone missing, so she took the desperate step of returning to her home town of Irpin, scene of some of the fiercest fighting in the first month of the war. “You just see a status that your documents are not submitted after notification that papers were submitted successfully,” she said.

She arrived in Irpin to find that her home had been largely destroyed in the battle. But the documents including her sons’ passports (left behind in the chaos of their escape), had miraculously survived allowing her to submit a fresh UK visa application for her son.

Nastya Melnychenko returned to Irpin to find her home destroyed. Miraculously she was able to retrieve personal documents

A writer and human rights activist, Melnychenko is one of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have sought refuge in the UK since soon after the Russian invasion in February under the UK scheme. Launched on March 18, it allows Ukrainians into the UK provided they have matched up with a sponsor willing to put them up for six months. (A separate programme allows in Ukrainians with family members already resident in Britain.)

“The programme is excellent,” she said. “But there is a problem. We cannot speak with representatives directly and we cannot check our visa status. We can just wait.”

Cases like Melnychenko’s are so numerous that protest groups are sprouting up in parts of England where would-be sponsors have been enraged by the way Ukrainian refugees are being treated. A growing number of MPs are now scrambling to get answers out of the Home Office for constituents who have enlisted as hosts.

Melnychenko’s case straddles two of the main issues that appear to have stranded the refugees in a precarious bureaucratic limbo.

Since the Homes For Ukraine scheme was launched in March, more than 200,000 people in Britain have signed up to offer sanctuary to the refugees. They have matched up with 74,700 Ukrainians eager to take up the offer. But as of Wednesday, the latest day the government provided figures, only 11,100 of 50,000 issued with visas have actually arrived in the UK.

Vigil for Visas protest outside the Houses of Parliament
A Vigil for Visas protest outside the Houses of Parliament. Since the Homes For Ukraine scheme was launched in March, more than 200,000 people in Britain have signed up to offer sanctuary to the refugees © James Manning/PA

In many instances, according to sponsors, lawyers and community groups supporting the programme, this is because one member of a family, usually a child, has not received a visa.

“One case I am doing . . . involves a family of five. The only one whose visa has not yet been granted is the five-year old. Clearly, they are not going to leave the five year old alone in a football field outside Warsaw,” said Amanda Jones, an immigration lawyer with Great James Street chambers.

Meanwhile, a mysterious backlog of applicants from the first week of the scheme has convinced many sponsors that data from early applications was lost.

Louise Marcinkevice, a procurement manager and would-be sponsor from Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire has put together an incomplete catalogue from exchanges on social media of more than 1,000 cases of Ukrainians still waiting for visas after 5 weeks, which was handed to MPs last week.

Louise Marcinkevice
Louise Marcinkevice, a would-be sponsor from Lincolnshire, has put together a catalogue from exchanges on social media of more than 1,000 cases of Ukrainians still waiting for visas after 5 weeks, which was handed to MPs last week

An employee manning a helpline for the scheme at Teleperformance, a company contracted by the government, said he had fielded many calls inquiring whether data had been lost, but he had no way of knowing whether this was the case. He painted a chaotic picture overall.

“The whole system is very confused,” he said, adding: “one thing that stuck is where they said there were missing documents they would give you an email to submit additional documents with. That flew in the face of the whole process because once you hit go you can’t submit any new documents.”

Until recently the call centre had a means whereby cases more than a month old could be “escalated,” he said. But there were so many, it was discontinued and employees were told to advise sponsors to see their MPs.

The employee said the other issue causing systemic problems was families attempting to travel together.

A visa centre in Warsaw
Visa centres, such as this one in Warsaw, have been extremely busy with refugee applications.

“I think the most upsetting one was the one with children, when they would withhold visas from one family member when others had been given permission to travel,” he said. He alone had been receiving four or five inquiries a day on this issue and there were more than 60 other employees working at the call centre.

Jones, the barrister, has issued several “pre-action protocols” threatening judicial review in such instances on the basis of “unlawful delays and failure to reach a decision within reasonable time”. In each case, she said, visas have suddenly materialised.

She is now preparing another pre-action protocol threatening judicial review of the overall administration of cases like Melnychenko’s that have been pending since the programme was launched in March on behalf of Marcinkevice and others.

“Either there is a policy to delay them or the home office is so shambolic that they can’t deal with them in any logical order — it’s bad faith or incompetence,” Jones said.

The Home Office declined to answer whether or not biometric data has been lost. But it said that while families were normally processed together some cases were complex and robust checks were in place “to protect children from trafficking and other risks”.

“The Home Office is aware some applicants have been waiting over a month for their applications to be progressed or an outcome to be communicated. We acknowledge that this is unacceptable and we are working to resolve this,” a spokesperson said.

“We are now processing thousands of visas a day — this shows the changes made to streamline the service are working.”

Source: Financial Times

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