Since Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, more than four million people have fled the country, seeking sanctuary elsewhere. Poland has taken two and a half million, Romania more than half a million. The pictures of refugees being welcomed with open arms are among the most memorable of the conflict so far.
What about the UK?
Our response has been – how shall I put this? – more measured. It was only public fury that kicked the government into action at all. The Home Office had planned to allow in only Ukrainians with family already here or who had been granted a seasonal work visa. Because that’s what you do, isn’t it, when you’re fleeing war? You immediately look for a fruit-picking job near Spalding.
But public pressure did not let up and in March, the government launched its Homes for Ukraine scheme. The response has been huge. Some 88,000 Homes for Ukraine visa applications had been granted by 14 June. By 13 June, 51,800 had arrived under the scheme.
Just over half the applications have resulted in someone being housed. Even now, it feels as if the Home Office isn’t keen on the whole idea. One whistleblower described the scheme as having been ‘designed to fail’.
High Peak’s experience echoes the national picture. Latest figures show that 143 people in the constituency have applied to act as sponsors,129 visas have been granted and 66 Ukrainians have actually arrived. Here, fewer than half of the applications have so far resulted in someone receiving a home.
Gordon Hall is a councillor on Whaley Bridge town council. He co-ordinates the council’s support of Homes for Ukrainian Refugees in Whaley Bridge. Twelve people in the town have applied to act as hosts. Ali is one of them. This is some of her story.
Ali, Tanya and Nykyta
In March, Ali registered with the government. Shortly afterwards, Tanya told her about Nykyta. Tanya is originally from Odessa and she had contacted her local priest there. He has two sons. The older one is fighting but the younger son, at the time, was in Spain.
Nykyta is 20 years old, a sailor. He was working on a commercial ship and in March, his contract finished. At the time, the ship was docked at Malaga. Rather than return to Ukraine, he contacted Tanya and decided to try to come to the UK.
Tanya put Ali in touch with Nykyta. They filled in the application form and Nykyta submitted it to the Home Office. On 21 April, he received an acknowledgement that it had been received, told he would be notified once it had been processed and that he could travel to the UK only once he had the notification.
Derbyshire County Council (DCC) got in touch to arrange the necessary house inspection. Even that bit didn’t go entirely smoothly – DCC originally thought it was Nykyta that needed inspecting.
Nonetheless, all the signs suggested that Nykyta’s application would be approved.
But then, everything stopped. The days passed but Nykyta did not receive permission to travel. He did receive another application form, for a biometric residence permit (BRP). This confirms your identity and allows you to extend your stay in the UK for longer than six months. Again, it all looked as if Nykyta would be able to come.
Nykyta hadn’t asked for a BRP but he filled in and returned the form – why would you not? The Home Office receipt for this form had a different reference number to his original application. Effectively, Nykyta now had two applications pending.
Hitting the wall, breakthroughs and no breakthroughs
Still no notification came through. Ali started contacting her MP on a daily basis. She never saw him but always spoke with his staff and most of the time, she felt like she was hitting her head against a brick wall. Despite repeated assurances, nothing changed and Ali was given no proof of anything – no record of emails sent or telephone calls that had been made.
Eventually, in increasing frustration, she contacted her Councillor Gordon Hall.
Gordon intervened with the MP on Ali’s behalf. She was soon told that Nykyta’s application had been approved on 7 May and he would be receiving notification any day now.
Much rejoicing! Ali messaged Nykyta and told him the good news.
But still the notification did not arrive.
Ali turned to the government’s visa support telephone lines. The man she spoke to was charming but admitted that he couldn’t access the computer system that deals with the applications. He had no way of checking Nykyta’s status. Ali asked him what was therefore the point of the support line? He replied, “None.”
She went back to her MP. The idea was mooted that because Nykyta had two applications, his first one may have been deleted and that was why a notification was never sent. When Ali asked if this could please be sorted out, she received the startling answer that an MP is allowed one enquiry per application. Ali had had her one enquiry and there was now nothing more that her MP could do.
This does not seem to be accurate. We contacted a caseworker in another MP’s office who said:
“Lots of ours have had multiple duplicate and replacement applications. The Home Office asks you not to chase because of volume, but we ignore that, tbh. Even if not using the hotline, there’s a Home Office hub in Portcullis House that staff can use for Ukraine and passport cases. You can also ask for an MP engagement meeting to go through cases.”
So it falls to each individual MP and their staff to make the effort.
Malaga to Dublin to Manchester
Back in Malaga, Nykyta ran out of time. He can spend 90 days in the Schengen area after which he is liable for a fine, which he cannot afford. He is also at risk of being deported. On 9 June, he travelled to Dublin.
While he was en route, he heard that his application to travel to the UK had been approved. He was also told that the notification had been initially sent on 9 May and then again on the 24 but he can find no trace of these communications.
He finally touched down in Manchester last Saturday.
This story has a happy ending but that is the only good thing about it. Ali describes in vivid detail her sense of powerlessness throughout. As she tried to chivvy an MP who didn’t seem to be interested. As she tried to navigate her way around the telephone support lines. As she pushed button after button until she reached the point where she might actually talk to somebody. But then, an automated voice said, “Thank you for calling”. There was a click and the line went dead.
Journalist Rafael Behr has described our immigration system as the infrastructure of rejection. It’s a shambles and it’s hard not to wonder if it’s a deliberate shambles, designed to make as many people as possible give up and go away. The hostile environment has been Home Office policy since 2012.
All Ali wanted to do was to help someone in need but she felt as if she were being punished for trying to do so. Heaven alone knows how Nykyta must have felt.
Ali and Nykyta have grabbed a happy ending but this is no way to run anything. The system is a complete and utter mess.
There has to be a better way.