UK visa regime leaves Ukrainian refugees trapped in precarious limbo

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For Nastya Melnychenko, the failed start of Britain’s admissions program for Ukrainian refugees led her on a perilous journey to the home she had fled just weeks before – in search of documents.

She and one of her two sons received British visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme set up by the government in response to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II. But her other son’s application, filed at the same time six weeks ago, is still pending.

She was led to believe that the biometrics she had provided at a visa application center in Warsaw had disappeared, so she made the desperate decision to return to her hometown of Irpin, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting. fiercest in the first month of the war. “You just see a status that your documents are not submitted after notification that the documents have been successfully submitted,” she said.

She arrived in Irpin to find that her house had been largely destroyed in the battle. But the documents, including her sons’ passports (left in the chaos of their flight), had miraculously survived, allowing her to reapply for a UK visa for her son.

Nastya Melnychenko returned to Irpin to find her house destroyed. Miraculously, she was able to recover personal documents

A writer and human rights activist, Melnychenko is one of tens of thousands of Ukrainians who sought refuge in the UK shortly after the Russian invasion in February under the British scheme. Launched on March 18, it allows Ukrainians to enter the UK provided they have found a sponsor willing to host them for six months. (A separate program allows Ukrainians whose family members already reside in Britain.)

“The program is excellent,” she says. “But there is a problem. We cannot speak directly with the representatives and we cannot check the status of our visa. We can just wait.

Cases like Melnychenko’s are so numerous that protest groups are springing up in parts of England where would-be sponsors have been infuriated by the way Ukrainian refugees are being treated. A growing number of MPs are now scrambling to get answers from the Home Office for voters who have signed up as hosts.

Melnychenko’s case straddles two of the main issues that seem to have trapped refugees in a precarious bureaucratic vacuum.

Since the launch of the Homes For Ukraine scheme in March, more than 200,000 people in Britain have registered to offer refuge to refugees. They joined 74,700 Ukrainians willing to accept the offer. But since Wednesday, the last day the government provided figuresonly 11,100 of the 50,000 visas issued actually arrived in the UK.

Vigil for Visas protest outside the Houses of Parliament

A vigil for visas protest outside the Houses of Parliament. Since the launch of the Homes For Ukraine scheme in March, more than 200,000 people in Britain have registered to offer refuge to refugees © James Manning/PA

In many cases, according to sponsors, lawyers and community groups supporting the program, it is because a family member, usually a child, has not received a visa.

“A case I am dealing with. . . involves a family of five. The only one whose visa has not yet been granted is the five-year-old child. Obviously they won’t leave the five-year-old alone on a football pitch outside of Warsaw,” said Amanda Jones, an immigration lawyer at Great James Street Chambers.

Meanwhile, a mysterious backlog of applicants from the first week of the program has convinced many sponsors that early application data has been lost.

Louise Marcinkevice, procurement manager and potential sponsor of Cleethorpes in Lincolnshire, compiled an incomplete catalog from social media exchanges of more than 1,000 cases of Ukrainians still awaiting visas after 5 weeks, which was given to MPs last week.

Louise Marcinkevice
Louise Marcinkevice, a potential Lincolnshire godmother, put together a social media catalog of over 1,000 cases of Ukrainians still waiting for visas after 5 weeks, which was handed over to MPs last week

A helpline worker for the program at Teleperformance, a government-contracted company, said he fielded numerous calls asking if data had been lost, but did not had no way of knowing if that was the case. He painted an overall chaotic picture.

“The whole system is very confusing,” he said, adding, “one thing that gets in the way is when they said documents were missing, they would email you to submit additional documents. This went against the whole process because once you press, you can’t submit any new documents.”

Until recently, the call center had a means by which cases older than a month could be “escalated”, he said. But there were so many, it was cut short and staff were asked to advise sponsors to see their MPs.

The employee said the other issue causing systemic problems was families trying to travel together.

A visa center in Warsaw
Visa centers, like this one in Warsaw, have been extremely busy with refugee applications.

“I think the most upsetting was the one with kids, when they were denying visas to one family member when others had been given permission to travel,” he said. He alone received four or five inquiries a day on this subject and more than 60 other employees worked in the call center.

Jones, the attorney, issued several “pre-action protocols” threatening judicial review in such cases based on “unlawful delays and failure to come to a decision within a reasonable time.” In each case, she said, the visas suddenly materialized.

She is currently preparing another pre-action memorandum threatening global administration judicial review of cases like Melnychenko’s that have been pending since the program launched in March on behalf of Marcinkevice and others.

“Either there’s a policy to delay them, or the home office is so chaotic they can’t process them in a logical order — that’s either bad faith or incompetence,” Jones said.

The Interior Ministry declined to answer whether or not the biometric data was lost. But he said that while families were normally treated together, some cases were complex and strong controls were in place “to protect children from trafficking and other risks”.

“The Home Office is aware that some candidates have been waiting for more than a month for their application to be processed or for a result to be communicated. We recognize this is unacceptable and are working to resolve this issue,” a spokesperson said.

“We now process thousands of visas a day – it shows that the changes made to streamline the service are working.”

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