Ukrainians attempting to flee to safety in the UK have described intense frustration and anger at the bureaucratic hurdles and technical difficulties involved in securing a visa under the new Ukrainian family scheme.
Numerous applicants said they were stuck in unfamiliar countries on the border with Ukraine, unable to come to the UK because they were wrestling with the complex application process. Some said they were having difficulties uploading crucial documents or the application website was crashing, while others said there were no appointment slots available to finalise their applications, or that they were dismayed to be asked to post supporting documents to an office in Wandsworth.
Families in the UK who are trying to help relatives make their way to Britain said they were confused by the complexity of the visa form.
“I understand they are under pressure with many applications, but the system is not flexible. This is a humanitarian crisis,” a British citizen, who asked not to be named, said, as she struggled to submit a visa application for her aunt and 14-year-old cousin who have fled Kyiv and are currently in Romania.
An apparent glitch in the system meant she was unable to upload documents proving the family connection, and received an email telling her she should post supporting documents to an address in Wandsworth, along with a fee of £75 per application (or £100 for a priority service) for the documents to be scanned. When she called the Home Office hotline on Sunday, staff said they were aware of an issue with uploading documents. “I’m furious with the process. My aunt has fled war, grabbed only important belongings, doesn’t speak English and desperately wants to be with family.”
On Monday the Home Office said just 300 visas had been granted, adding that about 9,000 people had started an application but not yet completed it. Some applicants said it was hard to complete applications because the visa appointment website crashed midway through.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said the development was “shockingly low and painfully slow”.
Matthew Peat, a senior manager with an accountancy firm, described trying to help his sister-in-law and her nine-year-old daughter, who had travelled from Ukraine to Rome, where they were hoping to get a UK visa appointment. However, when he attempted to book a slot for them, the only appointments he could access were in Poland.
“It would now appear that the only way to progress this matter is to ask our exhausted and distressed family members to travel from Italy to Poland to access the system there,” he said. “They are feeling very depressed and feel that they are not welcome here.”
Refugee organisations said these bureaucratic and technical issues highlighted the case for replacing a complex visa application with a simpler, visa-free humanitarian refugee scheme. Steve Valdez-Symonds, Amnesty International UK’s refugee and migrant rights director, said: “Instead of persisting with its insistence on visas or on sponsorship schemes for traumatised Ukrainians fleeing an active war zone, the UK should be putting in place fast-track refugee arrangements.”
Andriy Marchenko, the deputy Ukrainian ambassador in London, urged ministers to apply the proposed new scheme as a matter of urgency.
He added: “Ukrainians are known to be diligent, hardworking people who will be providing for themselves here. They will not overstay their welcome and at the end of their term in the UK they will return home to rebuild their country.”
Lawyers working with applicants under a pro bono scheme, the Ukraine Advice Project, highlighted concerns that the family scheme was limited in its definition of immediate and extended family members, and did not include in-laws or nieces and nephews of British citizens, unless they are under 18. There was also concern that a significant number of Ukrainian nationals working or studying in the UK were excluded from the scheme, and that many people were struggling to get appointments to submit biometric data (photographs and fingerprints).
A government spokesperson said it had “surged staff and increased the number of appointments” at its visa application centres in the region.
News that the last UK visa centre operating in Ukraine had closed at the end of last week prompted Adil Arslan, a British citizen, to set off to drive to Ukraine on Monday to collect his stepchildren, Maksym, 17 and Alina, 11, who were being cared for by grandparents. “I can’t just sit and wait in the UK while bombs are being dropped everywhere. Why on earth is Home Office not acting more swiftly?” he said.
Nataliya Rumyantseva, who lives in the UK and is of Ukrainian heritage, is one of the few who has succeeded in obtaining a visa for her mother, Valentyna Klymova, 69, who fled Ukraine soon after the invasion began by walking across the border into Hungary.
Klymova was only granted the visa after spending three days in Paris and going between the UK embassy, consulate, visa processing centre and UK immigration officials at the Gare du Nord train station.
“Not everybody can afford to spend several nights in hotels in Paris,” said Rumyantseva. “It creates a kind of existential despair in Ukrainians trying to reach the UK when they have to go through this after escaping from the war. The Home Office needs to simplify the visa process for Ukrainians.”