Alexandra Hall Hall documents the hurdles at every step experienced by Jane in bringing Nadia and her family to the UK – and questions why the Government created a system that seems deliberately difficult for those who want to help Ukrainians in need

Much has been written in recent weeks about the difficulties facing Ukrainian refugees trying to make it successfully to the UK for safety, even when they have been sponsored by a British family under the new ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme, launched with great fanfare on 14 March.

Nearly a month later, despite more than 150,000 Britons volunteering to become sponsors, just 10,000 visas have been issued and only around 1,000 refugees have managed to arrive in the UK. 

This is the story of the hurdles encountered by one particular British woman, Jane, to bring a Ukrainian woman, Nadia, and her family, to safety in her home in Cornwall.

Through sheer persistence, her efforts were ultimately successful. But, as she describes, given the hoops that she and Nadia had to go through, it feels as if the scheme was almost deliberately designed with a view to preventing any Ukrainians from actually making it here.  


Setbacks At Every Turn

Jane and her partner decided to sponsor a Ukrainian family almost as soon as the new scheme was announced and registered on the Home Office website on 18 March, the first day it went live for applications.

They decided that they had enough space to host up to four individuals, that they would not be choosy about who they accepted, and would take in the first four Ukrainians with whom they established a good match.

As there was no Government channel to put them in contact, they used a Facebook page to find Ukrainians in need. After a few false starts, they eventually connected with Nadia, a Ukrainian woman from Kyiv in her mid-fifties, who was looking for refuge for herself, her teenage daughter, sister-in-law and young adult niece.

It took several days for the two women to establish trust. Neither spoke the other’s language and they were communicating entirely online. Nadia was frightened about her family falling into the wrong hands – such as people traffickers; or ending up being stuck in a refugee camp. Jane was initially wary about sharing too much personal information. However, after a few days, they formed a bond, and Nadia agreed to accept Jane’s offer. 

The next stage was to complete visa application forms for Nadia and her family. The process was time consuming and daunting. One of the biggest challenges was that the forms had to be completed in one go – if you were missing a document or needed to break off for any reason, the form was invalidated and you had to start again. This was not easy in a war situation, when Nadia and her family risked at any moment having to take shelter from bomb attacks. 

Another challenge was that, though each application had to list all those travelling in their group, a separate form had to be completed for each individual. This created problems down the line, when Jane discovered that, though she was sponsoring the group collectively, the Home Office was processing each person individually, meaning that some permissions were granted before others. 

A third problem was that, as Nadia’s daughter was still a minor, the website required Nadia to obtain the father’s permission for his daughter to leave the country. This was not easy to achieve given that the couple were not living together and that he was taking part in the defence of Ukraine. 

Yet another issue was that some parts of the process simply weren’t relevant to Nadia’s situation. For instance, it asked her to explain her family connection to Jane. Several other such non-applicable questions led Jane to suspect that they had simply been hastily cut-and-pasted from other UK visa forms – such as those used for family sponsorship programmes.   

Nevertheless, with patience and determination, after working 11 hours straight, Nadia and Jane had successfully completed the forms by 19 March. 

They then had to agree a plan to bring Nadia and her family safely out of Ukraine and into the UK. This was at the height of the refugee exodus from Ukraine, when Kyiv was still being regularly shelled; Russians were attacking surrounding areas of the city; and trains and borders were jammed with others trying to flee to safety. Nadia also had two dogs that she wanted to bring with her, and continued to worry about getting stuck in a camp. She was only reassured when Jane offered to meet her at the Polish border and escort her in person to the UK.

While Nadia and her family went forward with their escape plans – which included trying to decide what to bring with them, what to leave behind, and how to get safely to the border – Jane enlisted the help of an old friend to meet her in Berlin and drive from there, via Kraków, to the agreed meeting point on the Ukrainian-Polish border. After two nights in Kraków and a registration process to ensure that they were legitimate sponsors, not traffickers, they finally arrived at the border on 22 March. 

Jane said that she will never forget what she witnessed there.

“We saw people running, desperately holding onto their children, to avoid them falling into the hands of traffickers,” she recalled. “We saw children crossing the border by themselves. We saw people helping older family members across the border and then going back into Ukraine. We saw wounded Ukrainians coming out and others going back in to fight.” 

Jane and Nadia had exchanged photographs in order to recognise each other. They finally met later that day.

“It was an incredibly uplifting moment,” Jane said. “There were lots of tears. Nadia and her sister-in-law kept trying to express their gratitude, but also stay strong and cheerful for their daughters. They were also clearly terrified. All the way back to Kraków they kept looking up at the sky for bombs. This was the first time they had been outside their homes in almost a month.”

Unfortunately, there was no news on the status of their visas. The Home Office had established a helpline for the scheme, but it turned out that the people manning the phones were unable to give out any specific information, since they were not allowed access to the Home Office database. Jane and Nadia were therefore completely in the dark as to whether their visas had been processed, were delayed, or had simply been lost in the ether. 

Meanwhile, Nadia needed to go to a UK Visa Application Centre (VAC) to complete her application, since her Ukrainian passport had expired. Jane had opted to do this at a VAC in Berlin, even though it was further away, to avoid queues at the nearer centre in Warsaw. However, astonishingly, when they showed up, no one at the VAC in Berlin knew anything about the Homes for Ukrainians scheme – and even tried to turn them away. This was despite the fact that the Home Office scheme listed the Berlin VAC as one of the centres taking applications from Ukrainians. Fortunately, a Ukrainian refugee who happened to be working at the centre managed to persuade staff to let them in.  

The group travelled on to Calais on 25 March to wait for their visas. There, they encountered another hurdle.

Under the terms of the scheme, the houses of potential sponsors were supposed to be checked by local authorities to ensure that they were appropriate places to accommodate refugees. According to the website, this process could be done once the Ukrainians were safely in the UK. But Jane’s local MP, Munira Wilson, who intervened with the Home Office on several occasions to help Nadia’s case, found out that they had to get the checks done before their visas were approved. 

Jane said that was her lowest moment. It had been an exhausting and stressful process to get this far. She was trying to maintain an air of calm to avoid worrying Nadia and her family. But she knew that, through the walls of their hotel in Calais, Nadia would have been able to hear her spending up to 10 hours a day on the phone fighting her way through British bureaucracy to find people who could help. 

Finally, through the intervention of another friend, the Cornish local authorities agreed to process their application while they were still in Calais. But five more days went past with no more news about their visas. Eventually, through a Guardian journalist who had been following their story on Twitter, Jane learned that there was a new Home Office ‘pop up’ site in Calais, which might be able to help. 

There they met yet another setback. The Border Force agents told them that Nadia would have to go back to Berlin to pick up her biometric card. This led to an agonising discussion between the group about how to do this. It would cost a lot of money to fly the whole group to Berlin, but Nadia worried about leaving her young daughter behind in the care of strangers. One of the border agents – “an angel” – finally resolved the impasse: on an exceptional basis, he decided to issue Nadia a ‘Letter to Travel’, which would give her leave to enter the UK and complete the biometric process there. 

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While this meant that Nadia finally had her papers, the others were still waiting for their visas.

On 31 March, Jane was at the point of deciding that they should just chance it at UK Customs, when at 5pm news came through that their visas had been granted. They immediately drove to the Eurotunnel, passed through French and British Customs, and at 9pm, in sheer disbelief, found themselves on the shuttle to Folkestone.

Nadia kept asking Jane: “Are we here? Are we here? Is this true?” 

Jane told me that, as they went through the tunnel, she felt like she was acting in a movie.

“It was like Midnight Express,” she said. “I felt like I was doing something wrong… like smuggling prisoners out of jail. I kept on waiting for some official to clap their hands on my shoulder in the train and say we had been found out. Or for one of us to fall asleep, and start talking in the ‘wrong’ language.

“I had never felt so proud of all the people who had helped us through this process. Or so deeply ashamed of my Government.”


Lack of Accountability

Two weeks on, Nadia and her family are slowly settling into Jane and her partner’s house in Cornwall. But they are still spending hours every day working through further bureaucracy to register for medical care, open a bank account, obtain the benefits to which they are entitled, complete the biometric process for Nadia, and enrol Nadia’s daughter in school (a process which again required the father’s approval, even as he is on the war-front in Ukraine).

Some of the processes require them to submit original copies of their birth certificates and passports – something Nadia and her family are deeply reluctant to do, in case they get lost, given that they have no way to replace them while the war in Ukraine is raging. 

Jane observes that Nadia and her family remain deeply traumatised by their experience. They fear for the fate of their loved ones in Ukraine. They feel guilty about leaving. They are grateful to be in the UK, but they do not seek permanent residence or UK citizenship – they want to go back to their country as soon as it is safe to do so. It has been particularly difficult for a woman as proud and independent as Nadia to be so reliant on the help and generosity of others. 

For Jane, the problems of the scheme represent either “unbelievable incompetence or a cynical betrayal of all the British people who put up their hands to help”.

She was lucky enough to have the time and resources to be able to do what it took to bring her Ukrainian family home, but felt thwarted along every step of the way. Many sponsors would simply not be able to devote the same amount of time and effort and might just give up – as, so it is reported, several Ukrainian applicants have done so themselves.

The biggest problems include the complexity of the paperwork, the absence of a central location for processing refugees, and the lack of a contact point to help answer questions and resolve issues along the way. The Government has chosen to devolve much of the settlement process to local government authorities, but without giving them the additional resources to do so effectively.

Jane recently learned that the Home Office was “in the process” of setting up a new team to help with the post-arrival paperwork – but wondered why this was still taking so long. Meanwhile, she is following cases online of literally dozens of other UK sponsors who are still waiting for their Ukrainian refugees to receive visas, despite applying on the same day as her.

There appears to be some internal glitch in the Home Office system which means that, even though visas may be approved, a technical barrier is preventing them from actually being issued to the recipients, she said. 

Saddest of all, perhaps, is that Jane is reluctant to talk in too much detail about some of the help or benefits she and Nadia have received for fear of a public backlash. Already, there are stories on social media about Ukrainian refugees facing some public hostility. 

However, Jane is most angry about the lack of accountability for the failures of the scheme.

“The Government has been able to stand up in Parliament and boast of its ‘world-leading’ role in supporting Ukraine, and yet it’s the only European country asking for visas. The Government utters words of welcome for Ukrainian refugees, yet the process has been made as hard as possible. It says one thing, and does another. Lives have been put in danger because of their ineptitude.”


An Incoherent Approach

I am glad that Jane was able to help Nadia and her family finally reach the UK safely. Her determination and persistence are admirable. Nadia has also shown extraordinary courage – in putting her trust and the lives of her family in the hands of a complete stranger, in a country she has never visited, and whose language she cannot speak. Ultimately, their story is uplifting. 

Yet, I find myself asking how on earth the Government can claim any credit for a process which is so dysfunctional and so reliant on the actions of private individuals.

There may be legitimate reasons for needing to put some checks in place. Some teething problems were to be expected. But, if the Government truly cared about Ukrainian refugees, it could have established a far easier system – for example, by allowing the refugees to get to the UK safely first and processing the paperwork afterwards.

If welcoming Ukrainians was a priority, it could have acted with far more speed and determination to iron-out teething problems. Nadia and her family might still be stuck in Kyiv or waiting in Calais, were it not for Jane’s sheer determination, a few strokes of luck, and the critical intervention of various ‘angels’ along the way, willing to flex the rules on their behalf.

The whole sorry saga is emblematic of this Government’s incoherent approach to refugees and migration. 

A Government spokesman previously told Byline Times that it is “moving as quickly as possible to ensure that those fleeing Ukraine can find safety in the UK through the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine”.

They said it had “streamlined the process so valid passport holders do not have to attend in-person appointments before arriving in the UK, simplified our forms and boosted case-worker numbers, while ensuring vital security checks are carried out”.

“We continue to speed up visa processing across both schemes,” the spokesman added.

Alexandra Hall Hall is a former British diplomat with more than 30 years experience, with postings in Bangkok, Washington, Delhi, Bogota and Tbilisi. She resigned from the Foreign Office in December 2019 because she felt unable to represent the Government’s position on Brexit with integrity

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