Ukrainian refugees are facing “total chaos” as they try to apply to join relatives in Britain under the Home Office’s bespoke visa scheme, as Downing Street contradicted Priti Patel’s pledge to expand the route.
Ministers have been accused of “badly letting Ukrainians down” after it emerged that those who have fled the Russian conflict are having to travel for hours and in some cases wait for days before they can make an application to the home secretary’s family migration route.
It came after Downing Street dismissed suggestions that Ms Patel was examining options to create a “humanitarian route” – which would offer Ukrainian refugees the right to come to the UK regardless of whether they have family ties – with a spokesman saying this was in fact referring to government schemes that have already been announced.
The Independent‘s Refugees Welcome campaign is calling on the UK government to set up a resettlement scheme to give Ukrainians fleeing the invasion sanctuary in Britain.
On Monday evening the Home Office revealed that just 300 visas have been granted to Ukrainians after the department received thousands of applications for its Ukraine Family Scheme.
A lack of available appointment slots at UK visa centers in EU countries has meant some refugees are not currently able to apply at all, leaving them having to pay for accommodation or rely on charity in other countries while they could be supported by loved ones in Britain .
According to the Home Office’s visa center website, the majority of visa centers across Europe close before 4pm, with some closing as early as 1pm, and are not open on weekends.
Hundreds of Ukrainians who have arrived in Calais after fleeing from the conflict with the hope of reaching the UK have meanwhile been told they must travel to Paris or Brussels in order to make an application. The center in Brussels is open on three half-days a week to process applications.
A poster has been put up in a hostel where around 139 Ukrainians – mainly women and children – are said to be staying, states: “No visas delivered in Calais” and orders refugees to fill in a visa form online, then go to UK visa centers in either Paris or Brussels in order to apply for a visa.
Ms Patel told the House of Commons on Monday that the Home Office was setting up a “bespoke VAC [visa application centre] en route to Calais but away from the port because we have to prevent a surge taking place”.
But the Home Office has released no further details about this centre, and the poster remained up in the hostel on Monday evening.
The home secretary announced a family migration route for Ukrainian refugees last week, under which she said tens of thousands of close relatives of British nationals and people settled in the UK would be eligible to come to the UK.
But in order to submit an application refugees are required to attend a UK visa centre, of which there are only one or two in most EU countries, meaning many must travel for several hours to attend one.
There are also issues with capacity, with UK-based family members and immigration lawyers reporting that they have been unable to find a free appointment slot on the website.
Immigration lawyer Jan Doerfel told The Independent he was supporting one Ukrainian family who had been unable to get an appointment at the visa center in Moldova, which is open Monday to Friday between 9am and 3pm.
“The family has been told that the center is staffed only by two part-time employees who work three days a week and there are no additional or separate slots for Ukrainian applicants,” he said.
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper described the situation as “chaotic”, saying there was a “huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality” when it came to the visa scheme.
“Please stop claiming this is all world beating and world leading and actually accept that it is not working and things are going wrong,” she urged Ms Patel in the House of Commons on Monday.
Lana Bilko, 51, a Ukrainian national settled in London, arrived in Germany on Sunday to meet her elderly mother who fled the Ukraine conflict last week. After submitting her mother’s visa application on Monday morning she was told it would take “at least five days” before they got a decision.
She had hoped to be able to take her mother back to the UK on Monday evening, given Ms Patel had stated that it would take a matter of hours for visas to be processed.
The Ukrainian national, whose mother is 73, said: “I took time off for today, but now I have to take time off for the whole week. We stayed in a hotel, €90 a night – I can’t afford for us to stay the whole week there.”
Ms Bilko said of her elderly mother: “She has witnessed war. She is so scared. When she hears a plane passing she starts shaking because of what she witnessed. Ms Patel is playing with people’s lives.”
Andrew Polakov, 47, a Ukrainian living in Britain who is trying to assist his parents and in-laws to join his family after they fled the country, described the visa process as a “shambles”.
The IT worker told The Independent he had been told by a member of staff on the Home Office helpline for Ukrainian refugees that he could submit all six relatives’ applications on the same online form.
He did this, but when his family members arrived at the visa center in Chisinau in Moldova, a two-hour drive from where they are currently staying with friends, they were told they each had to submit one separately.
Mr Polakov discovered that there were no appointments available for the following day, so had to rush to fill in the other five forms and re-submit them that same day – which they managed to do. The family has now been told they must wait 48 hours for a response.
“It’s ridiculous. It totally contradicts what the Home Office told us. The whole thing doesn’t work. It’s total chaos,” he said.
Nearly 600 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Calais over the last week and tried to join their family members in the UK. The prefecture in Calais told The Independent 286 of them have been turned away and told they must travel to other French regions to apply for a visa.
Clare Mosely, founder of charity Care4Calais, which has been providing nappies, sanitary products and other items to the refugees, told The Independent: “There’s a real lack of clarity about how it works and what they need to do to apply for a visa.
“Some of them have been told to go back to Paris, but it’s really expensive to live in Paris and stay in hotels in Paris.”
It came as French interior minister Gerald Darmanin warned that a failure to process Ukrainian refugees’ visas quickly could push some into taking small boats across the English Channel.
It meanwhile emerged that transport operators face ends of up to £2,000 per person if they bring Ukrainian refugees without the right visas to the UK.
A government spokesperson said there continued to be capacity at visa application centers across Europe.
They said that along with the family route, the Home Office would soon open an “unlimited sponsorship route” for Ukrainians without family ties here.