The government has acknowledged that processing problems within the Interior Ministry have led to delays between visa approvals for Ukrainian refugees and email notification that visas have been granted, preventing many vulnerable people from get to safety quickly.
Politicians from all parties pointed to a variety of serious problems with the Homes for Ukraine visa program during an urgent question in the House of Commons on the Home Office’s handling of the refugee crisis.
The latest figures show that only one in five visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine scheme had arrived in the UK. MPs suggested that the relatively low number of people traveling was a consequence of visas not being issued simultaneously to family units, with approval of visas for children often taking several weeks longer.
Around 86,000 visas were issued to people fleeing Ukraine under the two government programs for Ukrainian refugees (the Ukrainian Family Program and the Homes for Ukraine programme), but only 27,100 made it to the UK. Of the 51,300 visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, only 11,000 actually arrived in the UK.
Home Secretary Kevin Foster has dismissed as nonsense reports that there was a deliberate Home Office policy of denying visas to children. “I am aware of the claims that have been made, the false claims I have to say, that there is a deliberate decision to deny individual visas. These are utter nonsense,” he told the Commons.
But he admitted there were bureaucratic problems which meant refugees did not immediately receive emails notifying them that visas had been granted. “We were aware of a problem with the way the current system works, in terms of a decision being made and then having to be sent out,” he said.
It has been clear for several weeks that there are serious delays between visa approvals and refugees receiving emails telling them they have permission to travel. This is believed to be the result of a backlog of workflow between two separate teams of officials, with one group responsible for visa decisions and another group, based elsewhere, tasked with communicating those decisions.
Foster said a separate team was working to “ensure shipping”, but said the government was working on creating “a fully online system”, automated next month, which “would solve this particular problem”.
Shadow Home Office minister Stephen Kinnock said there was widespread frustration at the speed with which refugee cases were being processed, adding: “For too many people the hotline has gone freezing. “
Many MPs said visa delays were causing refugees to run out of money, exposing them to homelessness and a variety of other dangers while they waited for the UK government to grant their visas. Stuart McDonald, spokesman for the Scottish National Party’s Home Office, said the government had erected “a huge wall of bureaucracy and red tape” which was “causing totally avoidable misery for Ukrainians fleeing war”, and called for the abolition of the visa regime.
SNP MP Deirdre Brock highlighted the case of Yulia, a primary school teacher from Kharkiv who has been waiting for more than a month for her two-year-old daughter’s visa to be granted. He was told earlier this week that the visa had been granted and the travel documents would be issued within days.
“But the mother of the child had been called by mistake because it was actually someone else’s visa that had been granted, and it would take another two weeks or so for the correct visa to arrive. These people are, in fact, homeless,” she said. “Every day the message that they are welcome in the UK fades a little more.”
“I feel helpless”
Andrew Saunders, who offered to sponsor Yulia and her daughter, Diana, said: ‘From start to finish it was an incredibly incompetent and inappropriate process – it was supposed to take three to five days but we are more than one. months and we are still waiting for the visa for the two-year-old child.
Yulia, who asked that her surname not be printed, said she was intrigued by the need for lengthy checks before issuing a visa to a two-year-old child. After a month in Germany, she said, she was short on money and her daughter was increasingly unstable. “I feel really upset and frustrated. We have already stayed in four places and we still have to move this weekend so I am looking for a fifth place to stay. I feel helpless.
A government spokesperson said: “We are processing thousands of visas a day – this shows that the changes we have made to streamline the service are working and we will continue to build on this success to speed up the process even further. “