A man from Tredegar who drove to Ukraine to get his wife says her UK visa application was rejected and she was "made to feel like an illegal immigrant” awaiting deportation.
Joseph Escott has been married to his wife Olena for 20 years and expected her to easily obtain a family settlement visa to live and work in Wales.
However the couple were stunned when they arrived at Gatwick only to be told her two-year visa application had been rejected. Olena was instead issued with a six-month visa stipulating that she cannot work in Britain during that time.
The couple have also had to leave their 21-year-old son Aleksandr in Ukraine, as men between the ages of 18 and 60 have been told they must stay to fight.
Joseph said the whole experience has opened his eyes to the difficulties facing those fleeing war zones for the UK.
A UK Government spokesperson said they stand "shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians" and have "made it easier for those with Ukrainian passports to come here".
Now finally back with Olena, 48, at his home in Tredegar 65-year-old teacher Joseph says they still have not received a reason for the decision from the Home Office to reject the two-year settlement visa Olena applied for.
Joseph is now speaking about their experience to help people understand the difficulties facing those fleeing Ukraine.
The 65-year-old said he first contacted the Home Office to apply for a visa with Olena on February 17.
“I called the Home Office number provided on the letter I received and they said Olena qualified for a visa but requested I didn’t phone the number back and they informed me that they’d get back to me,” he explained.
“I waited and waited until Thursday, February 24. On that day my wife woke me up to say Odessa, where she was, was being bombed. I contacted my MP and was told I should call the Home Office again.
"When I called the Home Office they said there had been a mix-up and a misplacement of information, which clearly isn’t helpful when your wife is stuck in a war zone.“I kept getting the same thing and kept being told: ‘Hang on we’ll get back to you.’ But by the Monday (February 28) I decided enough was enough and I had to go to Ukraine myself.
"We’d already lost the opportunity to bring our son with us and so I couldn’t wait any longer.”
Once reunited with his wife, Joseph drove from the Moldova-Romania border with Olena and 15 other refugees to Budapest in Hungary.
At a visa centre there, he recalls that staff told him they could not process his wife's visa application because they had not "received an administration link they required from the UK Government".
"At that point I just broke down. I’m not a young man and there is only so much you can take," said Joseph.
Eventually, Jospeh and Olena were able to make the visa application and claim they were told 24 hours later "she had been cleared".
On Wednesday (9 March) the couple arrived in Gatwick and were put in a holding pen while they awaited a decision on Olena’s visa.
"To our dismay they stamped the visa for six months and said: ‘We’ll see how it goes’,” Joseph said.
"I found the attitude and words used towards us by the border staff really appalling to be honest. It means there is no permanent stay, Olena can’t work here, and we’re basically left in limbo.“It’s made me wonder why on earth did I even bother coming back here. I feel extremely disappointed with our government. Olena and I have been together for a long time, 20 years, and we have a strong family. We can endure most things but this – I honestly feel I’m not a British citizen anymore.
“If my wife has had to put up with this then what chance have these people got? They’ve got no chance. And we are not talking about people who are in any way a threat to this country.
"This government has zero compassion for the people of Ukraine.”
While now safe in Tredegar Joseph says the couple are “worried sick” about their family and friends in Ukraine. His son Aleksandr cannot leave the country even though he has a serious heart condition, which his father said means he will not be able to fight in the war.“My son is still out there. He is just 21. He is a kind, clever young man. We are very proud of him. We’re worried sick about him. I am sure he is in danger there. If they bomb children’s hospitals they’ll bomb anything.“We have two members of our family stuck in Kherson in the south of Ukraine at the moment which is now under Russian occupation. There is a very real danger they might not make it out of this alive.“My wife is distraught, exhausted by it all. I’ve never seen her so tired. I talk to her and sometimes she will break down. She isn’t the only one. There are thousands like her. What are they going to do? Send her back to Ukraine?”
A UK Government spokesman said: “We are standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainians which is why we’ve made it easier for those with Ukrainian passports to come here. This is alongside changes to visas to ensure Ukrainians in the UK can stay here.“We have expanded our visa application capacity to 13,000 a week, deployed additional staff across the EU, with a 24/7 helpline in place to ensure those who need appointments can get them to come here. This allows us to balance security risks while welcoming those in need.“A new sponsorship route, which will allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the UK to be sponsored to come here, is also being brought forward and all the measures we’ve put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners. We will keep our support under constant review.”