The UK’s flagship scheme for welcoming Ukrainians has been called “heartless and inhumane” after visa officials demanded a six-month-old baby undergo security scans 800 miles from her home before she is allowed to fly to Britain.
Olga Kolisnyk applied five weeks ago to take her two children – Illia, 11, and baby, Maria – to the UK from their home in war-torn Kharkiv but the process has been tied up in red tape.
Kolisnyk, a university professor, was initially told by UK officials that her infant daughter would be allowed to travel as she had been added to her mother’s Ukrainian passport.
But two days later she was informed by visa officials in Sheffield that this would no longer be acceptable – and that Maria would have to undergo biometric scans 800 miles away in Warsaw before they would be able to fly to Britain.
The demand was criticised as “a scandal” on Sunday as the Guardian revealed further examples of UK bureaucracy preventing Ukrainians from fleeing to safety. They include:
Only 6,600 Ukrainians have arrived in Britain in the five weeks since the Homes for Ukraine scheme launched, about 10% of the number of applicants. The government says it has stepped up the processing of visas in recent days and claims that some applicants are choosing to stay in neighbouring countries so they can return to Ukraine quicker.
But leading charities, including the Refugee Council and British Red Cross, have said the bureaucracy involved was “causing great distress to already traumatised Ukrainians”.
Kate Larmer, who co-founded a group that has matched dozens of Ukrainians with families in Surrey, said the UK was failing those in desperate need: “It’s a scandal. We have families who could’ve moved to safety a long time ago.”
Speaking from a village outside Kharkiv, the subject of heavy Russian bombing again last weekend, Kolisnyk said she was in fear for their lives.
She said: “While I’m still in Ukraine I will not feel safe. I hear somewhere not far from us the noise of bombing and I’m worrying about 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 Kharkiv’s national university of radio electronics before the war, said she was terrified to make the day-long journey to Warsaw without any assurance that the visas would be approved and face having to make an 800-mile return journey into Ukraine.
She said: “I worried that I’m going to Poland to Vac [Visa Application Centre] and that at the end they will just refuse and then what will I do? It’s my biggest fear.
“It’s very, very stressful because of this uncertainty. I don’t know how long we will wait. I would like to say that I want the UK to make this process more easy, especially if people want to travel with small children like my daughter.”
Kolisnyk and her children are living with relatives in a small house outside Kharkiv, which borders the region where Vladimir Putin’s forces launched a new offensive last week.
Her sponsors are Andy Le Roux, a church pastor, and his wife, Kate Le Roux, in Odiham, Hampshire. “It’s just heartless and so inhumane,” said Kate Le Roux, a biomedical scientist.
Le Roux, 45, said she had been reduced to tears after “rude” government officials refused to clarify the matter and even suggested the family should seek refuge in a country with better weather than Britain.
A government spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion we have launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes 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 Ukraine family scheme and Homes for Ukraine.
“Our Ukraine schemes have reached a turning point, thanks to the changes we’ve made to the streamline the visa system, including simplifying the forms, and boosting staff. Around 3,500 applications have been processed a day in the last few days, enabling thousands more Ukrainians to come through our uncapped routes.”