Why have so few UK visas been granted to Ukrainian refugees?

A refugee child looks out from a bus after fleeing the war from neighbouring Ukraine at the central train station in Warsaw, Poland, Sunday, March 27, 2022. More than 3.7 million people have fled the war so far, Europe’s largest exodus since World War II. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)
The Homes for Ukraine scheme has been beset by bureaucracy that has left vulnerable refugees stranded. Credit: AP

Despite tens of thousands of British people applying to open their homes to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion, only one visa for every 10 refugees applying under scheme has been granted.

Just 2,700 visas have been granted to people wanting to come to the UK under the Homes For Ukraine scheme, despite applications reaching 28,300, latest figures show.

There have been 31,200 applications for the family scheme and 22,800 visas granted.

Red tape and a lack of communication are being blamed for the sluggish system that has granted so few Ukrainians safety in the UK despite tens of thousands of British people volunteering to home a refugee.

People in the UK who have stepped up to sponsor a Ukrainian refugee have said their prospective guests are in limbo in Poland or remain in danger in Ukraine waiting for the system to grant them safe harbour.

There are two UK schemes for Ukrainian refugees: the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme, for which anybody with space to house a refugee can apply; and the Ukraine family scheme, for those who already have relatives in the UK.

Ukrainian refugees have needed to fill out lengthy paperwork for their visa applications. Credit: PA

Some 21,000 visas had been issued under the Ukraine family scheme as of Friday, and a total of 36,300 applications had been submitted, according to provisional data published on the Home Office’s website.

But there are many more waiting for news. According to one charity supporting families coming to the UK from Ukraine, no visas have been granted to those it is helping, almost two weeks on from the government scheme’s launch.

Why have so few visas been granted to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict?

How does the scheme work?

The Homes for Ukraine scheme opened on March 14, with the aim of allowing individuals, charities, community groups and businesses to bring Ukrainians – including those with no family ties to the UK – to safety.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme requires matching with a specific refugee or family, which means giving the government their names.

If you already know a Ukrainian national (or immediate family member) who you want to sponsor, you can help them apply for a visa under the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

You can sign up to the Homes for Ukraine scheme as an individual or as an organisation.

Security checks will be carried out on prospectives hosts while the local authority will also complete checks on the accommodation and living arrangements after the Ukrainian individual (or family) arrives.

How many visas have been issued?

The total number of applications from Ukrainians wanting to come to the UK was 59,500 as of March 29, the Home Office said.

This includes 28,300 under the Homes for Ukraine Scheme and 31,200 under the separate Ukraine Family Scheme, which allows Ukrainians to join relatives living in the UK.

There have been 25,500 visas issued altogether, including 2,700 under the sponsorship scheme and 22,800 under the family scheme.

Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing from war by crossing their borders to the west in search of safety. Credit: AP

Forms, bureaucracy and red tape

The visas themselves are an issue. While other European countries have waived checks in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by the Russian invasion, Britain retains a visa requirement for security reasons.

This has increased red tape, while the complexity of the process has made the it more protracted and difficult for people to apply. Ukrainians have to prove they were living in Ukraine before 1 January 2022, for example, not easy when you've left home with nothing.

ITV News has seen photographs of Ukrainian families having to fill out forms in bomb shelters, navigating intermittent internet to complete pages of forms.

Christopher Young from Refugee Assist told ITV News: "People that are on the run fleeing these war-torn areas are having to upload documents like their passports, which they just don't have the facilities to do so. So it seems that the government are putting in quite a lot of hurdles."

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Is it likely to improve?

The Home Office said it was looking into ways to speed up the visa process to speed it up.

Refugee minister, Kit Harrington has argued that streamlining the visa process has sped the process up but acknowledges the government needs to do more.

Last week, Lord Harrington said: “It’s my job to make sure the visa process is speeded up and in the last two weeks we have gone on to a system where those with Ukrainian passports can fill out the form and download the visa without having to go to a visa centre, which they did only two weeks ago.”

Lord Harrington said they were breaking European working hours directive with permission of governments to get British embassies, such as the one in Warsaw open seven days a week in order to deal with the backlog and new applications.

"Nobody actually knows what’s going on"

ITV News has been told of serious delays to the visa application process, with refugees having to fill out pages of complex forms on poor internet connections while sheltering from Russian attacks.

Another complaint levelled at the Home Office is a lack of organisation and knowledge of the scheme. Prospective sponsors say when they call the helpline, while those the other end of the phone are friendly, they are unable to tell them anything beyond what is on the website.

One newly married couple were forced to live in hotels for a month while the Ukrainian bride waited for a visa. Iryna, 32 remained in Ukraine to change her passport and identity cards to her new name after she married Ronan Ferguson, 38.

Mrs Ferguson, a gymnastics teacher, managed to leave Ukraine on February 27 for Poland, days after Russia invaded before she joined Mr Ferguson in his native Ireland, where they faced long delays and few answers.

They submitted their application on March 15 and heard nothing for a week, Mr Ferguson said.

He chased the application and was told it had been received, he said, but continued to get no more information.

“It seems to me like nobody actually knows what’s going on,” Mr Ferguson said.

Vlad, 28, right, hands his son Danya, 2, to his mother Tatiana, 26, as they say goodbye before she leaves Kyiv, at a bus station. Credit: AP

“They say so-called helplines to call, but you call them and (they say) ‘oh, we’re sorry for your situation but unfortunately we cannot give any information’, ‘we don’t have access’, ‘check your reference numbers’ and stuff like that.”

He continued: “As I say we’ve had so many different answers from people who work in the Home Office, people who actually work in the centres – everyone provides a different answer on what the processes are and what needs to be done.”

What does the government say?

Home secretary, Priti Patel, defended the scheme.

Speaking on a visit to a domestic violence refuge, Ms Patel said the visa process was "important" as it ensured that those coming to the UK had the right documentation to access services, citing the Windrush scandal as an example of issues that could arise without the correct paperwork.

"This is right that we go through due process. It has been difficult. We've stood up a scheme out of literally nothing. This was a brand new scheme, using a very streamlined visa process, but also matching individuals in Ukraine, from Ukraine, in region and transit on their way to the United Kingdom, with the amazing generosity that we're seeing from the British people in terms of matching that through local governments as well.

With that, if I may, I mean, we're here in a women's Refuge. We also have to do with safeguarding checks. We have huge responsibility. We have a responsibility to protect those that we bring it in to our countries as well, many are women, many are children as well. So it is taking time. "

She added that "schemes were never perfect" from the beginning, and that she reformed the family scheme "literally within the first 48 hours".

"I think we should be proud" - home secretary Priti Patel says it is the right that the UK grants visas for people under the Homes for Ukraine scheme despite delaying the process

What does Labour say?

Responding to the figures released on Wednesday, Labour described the low number of visas granted as "scandalous".

Shadow Secretary of State for Levelling ,Lisa Nandy, said: "We now know that only 1 in 100 of the offers by people to open their homes to Ukrainian refugees, has been taken up."This is scandalous. We’re wasting the amazing generosity that British people have shown."