Inside the cavernous confines of the airport in Iași, Romania, volunteers were offering food, drink and translation services to the continuous influx of Ukrainians fleeing war.
Those arriving knew that bagging a place on a flight required patience, tenacity and no little luck. Routes to Italy, Austria, Poland and Ireland were all fully booked. Yet one destination stood out.
The only planes leaving Iași last week not crammed with Ukrainians were those to London Luton, a snapshot of what critics call the UK’s heartless and chaotic approach to the largest refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war.
About 550 miles north-east, in the Polish capital Warsaw, that approach was weighing heavily on the Nelipa family, as they spent Saturday waiting for news that their visa application had at least been read by the Home Office. The 72-hour window for a response had elapsed and the latest update indicated no UK government official had even looked at it.
Warsaw is just the latest staging post for Viktoriia Nelipa, 38, her six-year-old daughter Mishel and autistic son Hryhorii, four, on a journey that began on 25 February with them fleeing fighting near their home in the Luhansk area of eastern Ukraine. They abandoned their car at Dnipro, caught a crowded 15-hour “evacuation train” to Lviv, then a bus to the border and onwards into Poland.
They hoped to be in Newcastle by now, where Viktoriia’s mother, a British citizen, has lived for 15 years. Instead they are stuck in Warsaw. And on Sundaythey are set to become homeless. With the Polish capital inundated, accommodation has become almost impossible to find.
Nelipa has no doubt that the Home Office’s “incomprehensible” decision to become the only European destination to demand a visa for Ukrainian refugees has thwarted their escape to the UK.
Meanwhile in Brixham, Devon, Nelipa’s sister, Oksana Andriianova, 40, will spend Sunday coordinating help for hundreds of eligible Ukrainians also struggling to reach the UK.
Despite 850 enquiries to her organisation, it has only helped a single case, via Paris, navigate the UK’s fiendish visa regime. “It’s been very difficult,” said Andriianova.
Even judged against the Home Office’s recent standards, the mix of incompetence, hard-heartedness and sheer dishonesty in response to the invasion of Ukraine has, for many observers, set a new precedent. Last week started with the admission that 50 UK visas had been granted since Russia invaded Ukraine – or one for every 28,000 people given sanctuary by the EU at the same time.
Home secretary Priti Patel then claimed she was considering a new route for refugees, but it did not materialise. Later, she announced a visa application centre had been established in Calais, but this was also untrue. By Wednesday, the Home Office said it was actually in Lille, but would not reveal where. A day later it became clear why: there wasn’t one.
Those helping Ukrainian arrivals in northern France confirm that the Home Office is more focused on media management than assisting vulnerable refugees.
“Ukrainians who spoke to the media, even when they weren’t eligible for a visa, immediately received one. Otherwise the Home Office was doing all it could to stop Ukrainians talking to the press,” said Clare Moseley, founder of charity Care4Calais.
More than a fortnight into the invasion, the Home Office says it has granted about 1,000 visas to Ukrainians – fewer than 60 a day, when an average of 150,000 Ukrainians are fleeing their homeland daily. Latest data from the UN refugee agency reveals that more than 2.5 million have fled Ukraine.
For those who choose to come to the UK, their gruelling journey to safety has been compounded by the difficulty of trying to obtain a visa.
Nelipa says it is difficult to comprehend how hard it has been just to register the application. Yet when they first visited Warsaw’s UK visa processing centre on 6 March – with her mother Lyudmila Milotay, 66, who was visiting from Tyneside when Russia invaded and fled with them – they were relatively upbeat.
Although the centre was supposed to be shut that day, staff had volunteered to help tackle the backlog and a huge crowd had assembled outside.
However, the private firm awarded the Home Office’s visa contract business appears to have let them down. TLScontact, which the Home Office watchdog was told last year had a “sole focus” on making money, has struggled under its responsibilities, according to many Ukrainian refugees including Nelipa.
“The TLS website did not work. Staff tried to answer people’s questions, but both sides were running out of strength and patience. People were sitting in corridors after trying to get an appointment for days,” she said.
Labour has released details of how TLScontact, a subsidiary of Teleperformance, has secured more than £4bn in government contracts.
Technical difficulties meant Nelipa and her children could only upload one of three sets of documents. The following day, 7 March, they returned to the centre at 8am and joined a queue of more than 100 people.
They stood outside in the punishing cold for more than 12 hours as Nelipa grew increasingly concerned for her son’s wellbeing. Hryhorii becomes distressed in busy environments and their overcrowded hotel had started to terrify him. Nelipa then learned they would have to wait another 10 days to submit their documents.
Only the intervention of the visa centre manager, who allowed them to jump the queue and submit their application, spared them. “She agreed to accept us as he [Hryhorii] could no longer keep returning to his room with a huge number of people,” said Nelipa.
But more complications followed. “After submitting the documents and biometrics, we were promised that within 24-72 hours there would be a result of the consideration. That has passed but the application tracker showed the information was not transferred,” she added.
Andriianova, speaking from Devon on Saturday, said that her sister’s ordeal was typical. “The Home Office has asked for so much documentation that needs to be translated and transferred to the application form. Most people, particularly those in such a stressful situation, are not technically able to do it.”
Another outcome of the UK’s restrictive visa approach is also evident with the Nelipa family’s plight.
“For us the saddest part of this situation is that my sister had a nanny for her autistic boy who has helped him from the day he was born and is like a second mother. But there is no way for her to get to the UK at the moment. Why should we leave her in Poland? She will have nowhere to stay, and with who? She is part of our family,” said Andriianova.
Yegor Lanovenko, who runs the Opora volunteer network, has spoken to hundreds of stranded Ukrainians trying to reach the UK in the past week, including elderly parents needing dialysis in Warsaw and bipolar children requiring urgent care in Prague.
Lanovenko said: “There is little that’s humanitarian or safe in forcing refugees who have fled their homes in traumatic circumstances to navigate poorly and inconsistently implemented visa bureaucracy, find accommodation and resources for long enough to make it to appointments and visa decisions in a completely foreign country, while their families wait powerlessly in the UK.”
For those like Nelipa, the uncertainty has become the one constant in her life. Like many, she has said farewell to her husband, who has stayed to fight in Kharkiv.
Their family home in Rubizhne lies close to the Russian border. On the first day of the invasion it was subject to fierce shelling. A return seems highly unlikely any time soon.
Andriianova said: “People have been shocked about the UK’s visa process. But we are Ukrainian, we help each other, we have learned to find hope.”