Stranded 13-year-old girl returns to war-torn Ukraine after Home Office rejects visa

By Westminster Producer Lewis Denison

A stranded 13-year-old Ukrainian girl who was being temporarily housed in "dangerous" accommodation in Montenegro after fleeing the war has been forced to return home as her visa application was rejected.

The teenager left her besieged home town in Ukraine along with her 18-year-old sister after being sponsored through the Homes for Ukraine scheme by a British family - but they became stuck after a delayed response from the Home Office.

The older sister had her application approved within three weeks but the younger sister heard nothing back whatsoever, said Mark Falcon who sponsored the pair to live in his family's home.

Their mother was forced to travel thousands of miles from her home in Ukraine to collect the younger sister, while the elder sister was able to fly to the UK and is now safely housed and continuing to study remotely.

Mr Falcon, who lives in Kilburn in north west London, told ITV News he's "ashamed and embarrassed" about the UK's handling of the situation, while the girls' parents are "bewildered" by their daughters being forced to split up.

He said he felt "completely helpless" after being sent a photograph of the mother and her two daughters before they had to part ways, in which the youngster looks "dejected".

The Home Office says it won’t process applications for unaccompanied minors from Ukraine and has not done so in this case, despite the youngster being accompanied by her adult sister.

Their parents are unable to leave Ukraine due to the pair working in essential services; one of them serves in the military and the other is a doctor.

They sent a statement in Ukrainian and English giving their consent for the older sister to act on behalf of her younger sister but the application was not accepted by the Home Office and the pair were forced to split up.

The case was raised at Prime Minister's Questions by Mr Falcon's MP Tulip Siddiq, who asked Boris Johnson whether he thinks "sending vulnerable children back to a war zone is the right policy?"

She told ITV News: “It is frankly disgraceful that our government’s policy appears to be to doing nothing for Ukrainian minors travelling without their parents, even when they are accompanied by other adult relatives."

The Labour MP acknowledged "the dangers of child trafficking" but said the Home Office must have a "more sophisticated approach" because its "callous policy has led to a 13-year-old being separated from her 18-year-old sister and forced to return to her war-torn hometown".

She added: "Government is putting many children in grave danger and forcing them to return to areas that are under constant attack by Russia. This cannot by right, and it’s time for the prime minister to show some leadership and sort it out.”

The Department for Levelling Up, which deals with the Homes for Ukraine scheme, did not respond to queries about the case but directed ITV News the PM's reply in the Commons.

Responding to Ms Siddiq's question, the prime minister said: "Of course I understand her indignation about the case that she mentions and I know the home secretary will be looking into it.

"But I have to say that I do think the record of this country in processing so far I think well over 120,000 visas for Ukrainians is very creditable. I thank all the staff who have been involved in that effort."

Mr Falcon, however, said the government is "trying to boast about the number of visas processed" but isn't recognising how many are being forced to stay in Ukraine.

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More than 14 million people have fled their homes since Russia launched its bloody invasion of Ukraine the United Nations (UN) says.

Almost seven million are in neighbouring countries, while eight million people are displaced inside Ukraine itself.

More than 65,000 people have arrived in the UK under Ukraine visa schemes, government figures show.

As of Sunday, some 65,700 refugees had arrived, including 23,100 people under the family scheme, and 42,600 people under the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme.

About 143,900 applications have been made for visas as of Monday, and 120,200 visas have been issued.

These include 46,000 applications under the family scheme, of which 40,300 visas have been granted, and 97,900 applications under the sponsorship scheme, of which 79,900 visas have been granted.