A tiny rural village that’s home to just 2,100 people has at least 43 households willing to host Ukrainian refugees.
So far though, not a single person escaping Russia’s devastating war has actually arrived in Rothbury, Northumberland – because of continuing delays with government visas.
Would-be hosts have spent the last three weeks helping families from Kyiv, Lviv and Mariupol apply for the necessary documents to move here – but, so far, not a single one is understood to have received a full reply from the Home Office.
Now, a local councilor says the area’s thwarted efforts to offer sanctuary means it is fast becoming a symbol of government failures in helping Ukrainian refugees.
“This is a whole community not just ready and willing but actually desperate to help people who are living with missiles raining down near their homes, and yet the government’s lack of urgency is preventing that happening,” says Steven Bridgett. “People here are in disbelief that it is taking so long.
“I don’t know if the government’s going slow on purpose – you could certainly believe that – or if it’s just sheer incompetence but it is outrageous that the delay is leaving lives needlessly at risk. It is unbelievable. It is a situation that Sir Humphrey would be proud of.”
He added that the first visa applications had been made 20 days ago and that Northumberland County Council – of which he is an independent member – had already visited and approved most of the homes for hosting.
“All that’s missing are the visas,” he said.
For Tom and Lesley Etterley, the delay has caused particular frustration.
The couple are among those who have readied their homes to accept a family. The oldest of their two sons – currently at university – will see his en-suite room turned into a mini-apartment for Natalia Nahirniak, a 46-year-old English teacher from Lviv, and her 10-year-old daughter Khrystyna.
“We are in touch with them every day and there’s this idea that Lviv is safer, which it is compared to the east, but they are still having to live with sirens constantly going off and the threat of missiles,” says nurse Lesley, 52 “They don’t have a basement in their apartment block so they are having to hide in a stairwell.
“They are living in terror, and it’s absolutely heartbreaking because here we are with this safe space, ready with open arms to welcome them. It makes me ashamed of our government. I’ll tell you, I’d drive over there and pick them up myself if I could.”
Rothbury may be unique in that many of the 43 families that are opening up their homes are doing so for Ukrainians who already know each other.
So, a teaching friend of Natalia – Romanna Holub and her two children – will be staying just five minutes away with Ian and Claire Forster, friends of the Etterley family. The elderly mother of a neighbor in her Lviv block is also due in the village.
“The idea was that there would be familiar faces in the village as they settled in,” says Lesley.
The revelation of Rothbury’s struggles comes just days after one of the ministers in charge of rolling out the Homes for Ukraine scheme suggested he was embarrassed by it.
Lord Harrington, the former Conservative MP who Boris Johnson brought in to help implement the initiative, told an LBC radio phone-in that it had been “slow and bureaucratic”, while declining to disagree with a caller who labeled it a “disgrace”.
He said 32,000 Homes for Ukraine visa applications have been received by the government but only 9,000 had been issued so far.
However, even that 9,000 figure dwarfs the number of refugees who have actually arrived in the UK – which currently stands at just 500.
Sonya Sceats, chief executive at the Freedom from Torture charity, which has a North East office, said the situation in Rothbury showed people’s “extraordinary kindness…is being hampered by government bureaucracy”.
She added: “This is being sadly replicated across the UK.
“While caring people have signed up in droves to welcome those fleeing the conflict, this government has refused to follow Europe’s example by scrapping onerous visa requirements and allowing refugees to reach Britain…It is time to cut the red tape, scrap their cruel anti- refugee bill and build an asylum system which treats people with fairness, dignity and compassion.”
A government spokesperson admitted the scheme’s progress had “not been good enough”.
They said: “The Home Office has made changes to visa processing – the application form has been streamlined, Ukrainian passport holders can now apply online and do their biometrics checks once in the UK, and greater resource has gone into the system.”
The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.