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13 April 2022

Ukrainian refugees feel “powerless” amid delays and red tape

The Homes for Ukraine scheme is hindered by broken printers, bare floorboards and bureaucracy – distressing applicants and hosts.

By Anoosh Chakelian

The UK’s Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme is so slow that even the mother of one of the MPs responsible has complained publicly about it.

Prue Leith, of Bake Off fame and surely just a few heartwarming railway documentaries away from being a national treasure, asked in an article for the Daily Telegraph why her refugee family hasn’t made it to her home yet. “We registered our willingness to take refugees the day after the website for the government scheme first went live,” she writes. “That was in March. Weeks ago. Since then, apart from an automated acknowledgement, we’ve heard nothing.”

Leith’s son is Danny Kruger, Conservative MP for Devizes and parliamentary private secretary to the ministerial team at the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the department responsible for the scheme. Leith’s intervention — in a newspaper sympathetic to the government — shows that the widely-reported problems with Homes for Ukraine are not simply political point-scoring from government critics.

While the government boasted that 100,000 people in the UK signed up to volunteer space in their homes within a day of Homes for Ukraine being launched, only 12,500 visas have been granted under the scheme and just 1,200 refugees have arrived via the route so far. The Home Secretary, Priti Patel, has apologised, as has the refugee minister, Richard Harrington.

The New Statesman has heard from applicants to the scheme who say it is beset with delays, confusion and flaws. A two-year-old and his mother trying to leave Poland to a host in Brighton had to wait three weeks; the printer broke at the pop-up visa centre they were using and they were made to travel another 200 miles to Warsaw, according to Caroline Lucas, MP for Brighton Pavilion.

“The biggest problem with the scheme is the delay, the length of time it has taken to bring people fleeing from war into the UK,” say Aileen and Nick Walker, a semi-retired couple in their early 60s who have been trying to help bring a family over to stay in their spacious three-bedroom flat in Glasgow. After applying on the first day the scheme opened, 18 March, it took nearly three weeks for their guests — an 11-month-old girl, her mother and her grandmother who had fled from Kyiv to Denmark — to get their visas approved.

The process was “not fit for purpose” and “designed for the convenience of UKVI [UK Visas and Immigration], and not the applicants”, the Walkers said. The paperwork is dense (the applicants were expected to provide nine pages of details for the 11-month-old baby) and a single error can mean having to start again from scratch. There is no way to track the progress of an application and when acknowledgement emails do arrive they come at different times for different applicants, leaving families wondering if one member’s submission has been lost.

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As the Walkers waited they received only “standard automated emails” acknowledging the applications. No timescale was given, despite Harrington suggesting that he wanted necessary security checks done “within hours” and introducing a 48-hour target for processing applications. Homes for Ukraine helpline call handlers were unable to help.

Weeks passed. It was as if the applications had gone into a “black hole”, leaving the Walkers with a “feeling of helplessness and hopelessness”. “It became increasingly embarrassing to liaise with our guest family as we did not know, and could not explain, what was going on,” they said.

The Ukrainian guest family expressed to me how “lucky” they felt to have been in touch with the Walkers, and said that it was moral support and contact from their hosts that helped them “not to feel powerless” during the long wait while they were “without the opportunity to check the status of our visa applying process”.

Nick Higham, who retired from the BBC but works part-time, and his wife also applied when the scheme was launched to bring a young Ukrainian couple in their late twenties — who had already been displaced from Donetsk to Kyiv after the 2014 invasion — over to stay in their four-bedroom house in London. They also waited for three weeks with minimal communication. They found the forms lengthy, confusing and with “a number of oddities”. Higham was asked what relation he was to the couple, for example.

“It had obviously been rapidly and not entirely successfully repurposed from a standard visa form,” he said. “They’ve tried to do a handbrake turn from a system which, from my understanding, has always been deliberately slow — it’s not meant to be fast, it’s meant to be difficult, so people are discouraged from trying to come here, and it’s not been upgraded or streamlined. For many people that’s going to be very distressing.”

Further delays and confusion have arisen around inspections local authorities are required to make of the homes in which refugees will stay.

“We didn’t manage to find anyone in the council who knew anything about their responsibilities,” the Walkers said.

Higham found a webinar for hosts arranged by his council helpful, and felt it was communicating regularly and working hard. He had not been given an inspection date when we spoke, two and half weeks after he and his guests had applied for the scheme. “Our council said they’d send someone round, but we didn’t hear anything [about a date],” said Higham (who has heard from it since we spoke). “The inspection may now not take place until after the refugees arrive. If they were children who had pitched up somewhere inappropriate, that’s not satisfactory.”

Local authorities that have carried out inspections have expressed concerns about trivial safety risks, such as bare floorboards, steep stairs and banisters with wide gaps, according to the Daily Mail.

“It is difficult to overstate the level of frustration and anxiety of not knowing each day whether your applications would come through,” the Walkers said. “What this whole sorry saga has brought home to us is that the Homes for Ukraine scheme is probably a reflection of the way the immigration and asylum system normally operates in the UK.”

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