The government has acknowledged that processing problems within the Home Office have led to delays between the approval of visas for Ukrainian refugees and emailed notification that the visas have been granted – preventing many vulnerable people from swiftly making their way to safety.
Politicians from all parties highlighted a variety of serious problems with the Homes for Ukraine visa scheme during an urgent question in the Commons on the Home Office’s handling of the refugee crisis.
Latest figures show that just one in five of those issued visas under the Homes for Ukraine scheme had arrived in the UK. MPs suggested that the relatively small number of people travelling was the consequence of visas not being issued to family units simultaneously, with approval of children’s visas often taking several weeks longer.
About 86,000 visas have been issued to people fleeing Ukraine under the government’s two Ukraine refugee schemes (the Ukraine family scheme and the Homes for Ukraine scheme) but just 27,100 have travelled to the UK. Of the51,300 visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, only 11,000 have actually arrived in the UK.
The Home Office minister Kevin Foster dismissed as nonsense reports that there was a deliberate Home Office policy to withhold children’s visas. “I am aware of the claims that have been made, the false claims I have to say, that there is a deliberate move to withhold individual visas. Those are absolute nonsense,” he told the Commons.
But he admitted there were bureaucratic issues which meant refugees were not immediately receiving emails informing them that the visas had been granted. “We have been aware of an issue with the way the current system is working, in terms of the decision being made and then needing to be dispatched,” he said.
It has been clear for a number of weeks that there are serious delays between visas being approved and refugees receiving emails telling them they have permission to travel. This is understood to be the result of a workflow backlog between two separate teams of civil servants, with one group responsible for visa decisions and another group, based elsewhere, in charge of communicating those decisions.
Foster said there was a separate team working on “ensuring dispatch”, but said the government was working on creating “a fully online”, automated system next month, which would “resolve that particular issue”.
The shadow Home Office minister Stephen Kinnock said there was widespread frustration at the speed with which refugee casework was being processed, adding: “For too many, the hotline has gone stone cold.”
Numerous MPs said delays in issuing visas 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, the Scottish National party’s Home Office spokesperson, said the government had erected “a massive wall of bureaucracy and red tape” which was “causing totally avoidable misery for Ukrainians fleeing war”, and called for the visa regime to be scrapped.
Fellow SNP MP Deirdre Brock highlighted the case of Yulia, a primary school teacher from Kharkiv who has been waiting more than a month for her two-year-old daughter’s visa to be granted. She was told earlier this week that the visa had been granted, and travel documents would be issued in a couple of days.
“But the child’s mother had been phoned by mistake as it was, in fact, someone else’s visa that had been granted, and it would take around another two weeks for the right visa to come through. These folks are, in effect, homeless,” she said. “Each day the message that they are welcome in the UK fades a little more.”
‘I feel powerless’
Andrew Saunders, who has offered to sponsor Yulia and her daughter, Diana, said: “From start to finish it has been a staggeringly incompetent and inappropriate process – it was meant to take three to five days but we are more than a month in and we still await the visa for the two-year-old.”
Yulia, who asked for her surname not to be printed, said she was puzzled by the need to conduct protracted checks before issuing a visa to a two-year-old. After a month in Germany, she said, she was running out of money, and her daughter was increasingly unsettled. “I am feeling really upset and frustrated. We have already stayed in four places and we have to move again this weekend so I’m looking for a fifth place to stay. I feel powerless.”
A government spokesperson said: “We are processing thousands of visas a day – this shows the changes we made to streamline the service are working and we’ll continue to build on this success so we can speed up the process even further.”