Ukrainians still stranded in Europe weeks after applying to join family in UK

The UK government has been accused of leaving Ukrainian refugees “stranded in purgatory” as large numbers are still waiting for the Home Office’s permission to join their loved ones in Britain weeks after applying.

The family visa scheme set up in response to the Ukraine war has been described as a shambles, as lawyers warn that refugees who have relatives ready to support them in the UK are being given inaccurate information, asked for unnecessary documents and told to send their passports across the continent.

Nearly half of the 35,500 Ukrainians who have applied to the scheme, which was launched on 4 March, are still waiting for a decision – amounting to more than 15,400 individuals.

The Independent has spoken to refugees who have been forced to pay for accommodation for weeks as they wait for their visas to be processed.

Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper the situation was appalling and called on the Home Office to simplify the process, adding: “The government has had months to prepare for this, and yet delays across the system are still causing chaos and confusion.

“They should also set up emergency centers along the main travel routes to provide assistance for Ukrainians wanting to reach the UK. The Home Office’s response has completely failed to meet the scale and urgency of this crisis, and it is Ukrainian families who are paying the price.”

Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “As if the anxiety and uncertainty of fleeing their homes isn’t awful enough, Ukrainians are being left stranded in purgatory by a visa scheme in shambles. It is simply unforgivable.

The Independent is raising money for the people of Ukraine – if you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

“Ministers need to drop the red tape and let refugees fleeing Putin’s bombs come here without having to apply for a visa – some compassion would not go amiss, either.”

Nataliia Tsvyakh, who fled from Ukraine on 24 February with her two sons, Mark, three and Denys, five – leaving her husband and parents, who did not want to leave, behind – said she was struggling to keep her children calm after waiting for weeks to join her uncle and his family in the UK.

Ms Tsyakh had to wait until 17 March to attend a visa appointment to submit photographs and fingerprints. Her eldest son’s passport is expired, but she was told she could attach his application with her passport de ella, and that she would receive a decision within two days.

But Ms Tsyakh has since been informed by the Home Office that she needs to submit a separate application for her son, which is delaying the case further.

Nataliia, Denys and Mark, took shelter in their basement when there were air raid sirens before deciding to flee Ukraine

(Natalia Tsvyakh)

Her uncle, Oleksandr Khanyhin, traveled to Romania on 5 March to help her to make the application. They had been staying in a hotel in Bucharest for about €70 (£58) a night, and have now moved to a cheaper hostel – the four of them staying in one room – which costs them €30 per night.

“It’s hard, it’s like a constant pressure. Are they going to give you the visas, are they not, what are we going to do if they don’t? That’s at the back of our minds every day,” Ms Tsyakh told The Independent.

“When we first left I told the kids I was taking them on an adventure. But they’ve seen planes flying and people crying. They’re asking me why this is happening. The eldest is asking me why we’re still in this hostel. I’m just trying to keep them calm and not frustrated.”

In another case, Roxy Savchenko, left her home in Cardiff on 2 March to meet her sister Daryna Savchenko and her 10-month-old baby Vladyslav in Warsaw after they fled from Ukraine.

Roxy Savchenko, right, left her home in Cardiff on 2 March to meet her sister Daryna and her 10-month-old baby Vladyslav in Warsaw

(Roxy Savchenko)

She had expected to be able to return with them to the UK within a couple of days, but more than a fortnight later they remain on the continent, in Paris, dealing with a “ridiculous” visa process.

Despite initially being told that the baby could be included on Daryna’s application, on Wednesday they received an email from the Home Office stating that Vladyslav needed a separate application. They have now submitted an application for him and are still awaiting a decision.

The immigration process has been delayed after the Home Office insisted baby Vladyslav needed a separate visa

(Roxy Savchenko)

Ms Savchenko said: “We have had enough. It’s all very very difficult. None of us have to be in this situation. We could have been back in the UK three weeks ago. This is ridiculous.”

Jennifer Blair, an immigration lawyer who is voluntarily advising Ukrainians trying to reach the UK via the Ukraine Advice Project, said the application process was “chaotic” and “unsatisfactory”.

She pointed out that a “good chunk” of those applying were still in Ukraine because they do not want to leave until they have somewhere safe to live, adding: “People are at risk of death as they wait.

“This week a lot of the inquiries are about delays and there’s not much we can say to people. From the beginning we have said the government should find a way to let people in and decide on their applications in-country, but there’s been no sense of a crisis response.”

Ms Blair described “really horrible” situations where some members of a family had been granted their visas and others had not.

“This is causing a lot of confusion, and there’s no way to really sort it out. What happens if they leave and then their mother is killed? she said.

The advice project had also come across a number of cases where applicants have been told they must send their passports to another country to have their visas processed, Ms Blair said, citing two cases where people applying in Poland were asked to post their passports to Germany .

Kerry Garcia, another immigration lawyer supporting Ukrainians on a pro bono basis, said: “The system is still a mess, which is making it very hard to help people.

“The emails the Home Office send out make little sense. It’s impossible to contact anyone, document lists are generated asking for unnecessary documents, the online system was reset on Tuesday last week so documents we had uploaded disappeared.

“There is no clarity on the process and ultimately it is incredibly frustrating for everyone concerned. I have been practicing immigration for nearly 20 years and while the system is not perfect I have never known anything as bad as this.”

A government spokesperson said: “We are moving as quickly as possible to ensure that those fleeing horrific persecution in Ukraine can find safety in the UK.

“We have streamlined the visa application process so valid passport holders no longer have to attend in-person appointments before arriving and made changes to our forms to help people through the process as quickly as possible.”

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.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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