The UK’s flagship scheme to welcome Ukrainians has been branded ‘heartless and inhumane’ after visa officials demanded a six-month-old baby undergo security checks 800 miles from home before she is not allowed to travel to Britain.
Olga Kolisnyk applied five weeks ago to bring her two children – Illia, 11, and her baby, Maria – to the UK from their home in war-torn Kharkiv, but the process has been blocked by formalities administrative.
Kolisnyk, a university professor, was first told by British officials that her baby girl would be allowed to travel because she had been added to her mother’s Ukrainian passport.
But two days later she was told by visa officers in Sheffield that this would no longer be acceptable – and that Maria would have to undergo biometric scans 800 miles away in Warsaw before she could travel to Britain.
The request was branded a “scandal” on Sunday as the Guardian revealed further examples of British bureaucracy preventing Ukrainians from fleeing to safety. They include:
Families who applied almost five weeks ago but are still waiting for UK visas, despite the government’s promise to approve them within 48 hours.
At least 14 cases, involving nine adults and five children, where visas were approved but applicants were not notified. A family of a five-year-old boy were waiting in Kharkiv for missiles to fall because they had not been told they had clearance to fly to Britain.
An 11-year-old boy was waiting so long that his passport expired – so UK authorities told him to start the process over and travel to Warsaw to undergo biometric scans.
Only 6,600 Ukrainians have arrived in Britain in the five weeks since the launch of the Homes for Ukraine scheme, around 10% of the number of applicants. The government says it has ramped up visa processing in recent days and says some applicants are choosing to stay in neighboring countries so they can return to Ukraine more quickly.
But leading charities including the Refugee Council and the British Red Cross said the bureaucracy involved was “causing great distress to already traumatized Ukrainians”.
Kate Larmer, who co-founded a group that connected dozens of Ukrainians with families in Surrey, said the UK is failing those in desperate need: “It’s an outrage. We have families that could have made themselves safe a long time ago.
Speaking from a village outside Kharkiv, which again came under heavy Russian bombardment last weekend, Kolisnyk said she feared for their lives.
She said: “As long as I am still in Ukraine, I will not feel safe. I hear somewhere not far from us the noise of the bombardments and I worry for my family and especially my children. My only wish is to get visas for me and my son and for Maria – that’s my only wish.
Kolisnyk, 38, who taught economics at the National University of Radioelectronics in Kharkiv before the war, said she was terrified of making the day trip to Warsaw without any assurances that visas would be approved and that she would have to do an 800 mile round trip. trip to Ukraine.
She said: “I was afraid to go to Poland in Vac [Visa Application Centre] and in the end they’re just going to refuse and then what am I going to do? It’s my biggest fear.
“It’s very, very stressful because of this uncertainty. I don’t know how long we are going to wait. I would like to say that I want the UK to make this process easier, especially if people want to travel with young children like my daughter.
Kolisnyk and his children live with relatives in a small house outside Kharkiv, which borders the region where Vladimir Putin’s forces launched a new offensive last week.
His godparents are Andy Le Roux, a church clergyman, and his wife, Kate Le Roux, in Odiham, Hampshire. “It’s just heartless and so inhuman,” said Kate Le Roux, a biomedical scientist.
Le Roux, 45, said she was reduced to tears after ‘rude’ government officials refused to clarify the matter and even suggested the family take refuge in a country with a better climate than Great Britain.
A government spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion, we have launched one of the fastest and largest visa programs in UK history. In just five weeks, over 56,000 visas have been issued so people can rebuild their lives in the UK through the Ukrainian Family Program and Homes for Ukraine.
“Our programs in Ukraine have reached a turning point, thanks to the changes we made to streamline the visa system, including simplifying forms and strengthening staff. About 3,500 applications have been processed per day in recent days, allowing thousands more Ukrainians to travel through our uncapped routes.