Refugees exhausted by visa woes are returning to war-torn Ukraine

  • Insider spoke to three families returning to Ukraine because of the UK’s visa backlog.
  • They said they could not afford accommodation in Europe while they wait for their visas to be approved.
  • According to the Home Office, only 2.8% of Homes for Ukraine visa applicants have arrived in the UK.

Natalia Kulish, 34, had to make an agonizing decision.

She could remain in Poland with her two children and face homelessness if the family’s UK visas took much longer to be issued. Or she could return to war-torn Ukraine and reunite her children with their father, but expose them to the risk of being bombed.

Kulish chose the latter, and she is one of several refugee families who have reluctantly chosen to return to Ukraine rather than wait indefinitely for the Interior Ministry to process their paperwork.

Natalia, Luka and Mariia pose for a Christmas photo

Natalia, Luka and Mariia Kulish in front of a Christmas tree.

Natalia Kulish/Insider

Kulish fled Dnipro in western Ukraine on March 16 with her children Mariia, 11, and Luke, 4.

They traveled to Warsaw, where a Pole agreed to temporarily house them in his apartment while they awaited their visas.

They applied on March 18, launch day, for the Homes for Ukraine scheme, which allows people and organizations in the UK to match people fleeing Ukraine and offer them housing. Kulish was told she could expect to get a visa within four days, she told Insider.

The Kulish family then planned to fly to the UK to start a new life with a foster family in Hampshire, England, or so they hoped.

Two weeks passed and the visa still hadn’t been issued. By this time, Kulish and her family could no longer stay in the one-room apartment in Warsaw.

“In Warsaw there were a lot of people who came from Ukraine and there was no way to rent housing at an affordable price,” she told Insider.

Facing the possibility of homelessness, Kulish decided to return to her homeland in Ukraine on April 2.

Back in Dnipro, Kulish said, “the nights pass anxiously” as she and her children listen to the sirens wail and impatiently wait for their visas to be approved.

Lilia, Nina and Plato

Lilia, Nina and Plato in Warsaw.

Leila Majewska/Insider

On Thursday evening, another family returned to their home in a war zone.

Nina, 43, Liliia, 21, and newborn baby Platon fled Ukraine to Poland on foot last month.

Once in Poland, they applied for a Homes for Ukraine visa. Leila Majewska, who is Polish but lives in Derby, England, has teamed up with Nina, Liliia and Platon in a Facebook group.

Majewska immediately began preparing her home for the family. She bought a cot and a stroller and eagerly awaited their arrival.

A bedroom in the UK with a cot and toys was prepared by Leila Majewska

Leila Majewska had prepared the bedroom in her house for the arrival of Nina, Lillia and Platon.

Leila Majewska/Insider

As the visa application process dragged on, Majewska flew to Warsaw and visited a visa center with them. Majewska said the family was told the visa would take five days to process.

Meanwhile, the family stayed with a Polish woman for free.

But 17 days passed, said their sponsor, and Nina and Liliia realized that staying in Warsaw indefinitely was no longer feasible.

“I think it’s emotional not having your own money and being in someone’s place when you’re told it’s only going to be for a week at most and then it’s 17 days and you’re still waiting,” he said Majewska to Insider.

Majewska said she was frustrated with the UK’s visa backlog. “If they got the visa on time, they wouldn’t be there and they would feel safe and comfortable,” she said.

Life in “purgatory” had a negative impact on the family’s mental health, Majewska noted. “It’s the suspension, waiting for something, but you don’t know if it’s actually going to happen,” she said.

Only 2.8% of Homes for Ukraine applicants have arrived in the UK

Only 1,200 Ukrainians who applied for the Homes for Ukraine program have arrived in the UK, according to figures released by the Home Office on Friday. That’s just 2.8% of the 43,600 people who applied.

The Government’s refugee secretary, Lord Richard Harrington, has called the introduction of the plan “embarrassing” and “a slow and bureaucratic process”.

In a statement to Insider, a government spokesman said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion, we have launched one of the fastest and largest visa programs in UK history. In just four weeks over 40,000 visas have been issued to help people rebuild their lives in the UK.”

Refugee women with children walk to boarding transport at Central Station in Warsaw, Poland on Thursday, April 7, 2022.

Refugee women with children at the main train station in Warsaw, April 7, 2022.

Czarek Sokolowski)/AP Photo

Interior Ministry figures show that of the 79,800 applications submitted, 41,000 visas were granted to Ukrainians fleeing the war. Of these, 12,000 Ukrainians arrived in Britain.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Republic of Ireland, which has a tenth the population of the UK, has taken in more than 20,000 people from Ukraine, according to Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin.

Refugee charities have called on the UK government to waive visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees in a bid to bring the country in line with other EU nations such as Ireland.

Many of the refugees arriving in the UK arrive through the Ukraine Family Scheme, which allows applicants to apply for a visa to join a UK resident family member.

According to the Home Office, 10,800 of the 36,300 applicants have arrived in the UK so far.

Peter Lee’s mother-in-law and sister-in-law are among those who have benefited from the program, but he told Insider that the application process caused “fear and frustration” and prompted his relatives to temporarily return to Ukraine.

“We felt that the only option was for them to return to Ukraine”

Lee’s family tried to join him in the UK after fleeing on foot from Uzhhorod in western Ukraine.

They came to Hungary and Lee put them up in a hotel in Budapest. As the visa process dragged on, the family decided that paying for the expensive accommodation was no longer financially viable.

“We felt like the only option for us was for them to go back to Ukraine and ultimately wait one more time,” Lee said.

Eventually the family’s visas were approved and they now live in the UK.

Sandip Basu, a Ukraine Advice Project volunteer legal advisor who has been helping the Lee family, told Insider it was “shameful” that the family had to endure the bureaucratic nightmare. It shows that the UK visa application process is not fit for purpose, he said.

“It’s a problem of lack of communication between the Interior Ministry, the government and the visa application center and simply a matter of being unprepared,” Basu said.

On Friday, Home Secretary Priti Patel apologized “with frustration” for the program’s failure. “I’ll be very open. It took some time,” she said, per BBC News. “Every new system takes time. Every new visa system takes time.”

But Basu told Insider the system’s biggest flaw is that it doesn’t take into account the agonizing decisions refugees from Ukraine are forced to make.

“It’s a choice between starvation and homelessness, or going back to their homes where they at least have shelter, although there’s a risk of bombs falling on them,” he said. “It’s an incredible decision and I don’t know what I would do if I had to make that decision.”

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