Woman who fled war in Ukraine gets £100 tax bill from HMRC after arriving in Wales

The day before Russia's invasion in February, Carolyn was devastated to have to leave Ukraine, taking with her a single suitcase of belongings. Credit: Media Wales

A teacher who fled Ukraine for Wales has accused HMRC of a "kick in the teeth" after she was taxed more than £100 on possessions mailed from the war-torn country.

Carolyn Ross, 41, who grew up in Swansea, was working as an art teacher at the British International School in Kyiv.

The day before Russia's invasion in February she was devastated to have to leave Ukraine, taking with her a single suitcase of belongings. Since then she has been staying with family in Swansea.

A friend's husband posted Carolyn the rest of her possessions through Parcelforce and two of the three suitcases were delivered — but the third was held until she paid a £104.21 tax to Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC).

Carolyn had to leave her cat at a cat hotel in Lviv, but later spent about 18 hours on a train to reach the Polish border and pick him up. Credit: Media Wales

Carolyn, who had already covered the £400 postal fee, said: "They were labelled as commercial goods even though they were clearly personal. It's used underwear, tights, work dresses, blazers for work. It's obvious these things have been worn.

"I've lost my home, my normality, my students, my colleagues, my friends — the whole situation is so heartbreaking and I'm being charged £104 after already paying £400 to get my items back.

"It's just a kick in the teeth. Are you kidding me? Have I not been through enough?"

Carolyn had been living in a "great apartment" in the "wonderful city" of Kyiv for two and a half years before the invasion.

Carolyn said: "When everything started kicking off I went from Kyiv to Lviv, so I would be right against the border if something went seriously wrong.

"I spent about two weeks in Lviv — we were teaching online because of Covid — but then the UK government website basically said you should get out that day, so I caught a 6:30pm fight and I was home in Wales that night. The next day the bombs hit and flights were grounded."

The teacher had to leave her cat, Drako, at a cat hotel in Lviv, but around a week later she spent about 18 hours on a train to reach the Polish border and pick him up from hotel staff.

She also volunteered to collect four other animals from the border — a German cat which she reunited with its owner, as well as two kittens and a puppy which she rehomed.

Smoke billows into the air from residential buildings following explosions in Kyiv on Sunday Credit: Nariman El-Mofty/AP

Carolyn spent a month in Germany awaiting a pet passport for Drako. She was made redundant from her job at the international school.

After such a stressful period all she wanted was her possessions back, but she was shocked to be hit with the HMRC bill.

Carolyn said: "I went to Parcelforce and to be fair they were amazing. They said they couldn't release the third suitcase because they'd be fined.

"I was told it was because the value exceeded £500, even though the items had been worn. I'm confused because my suitcase which had all my shoes was worth way more, but that was delivered.

"One of my friends in a similar situation was charged £13.50 for a package containing 10 books, and she was told it was because the value exceeded £10. I don't understand where they're getting these charges from."

Carolyn was warned that if she did not pay within 20 days the suitcase would be returned to sender.

'Heartbreaking' impact of war

Carolyn said: "I went to the HMRC website and filled in a form to dispute the charge, with a photocopy of the bill and a letter explaining the situation.

"I had nothing back. There was no way I could phone them, it was just an automated service that wants you to pay.

"I ended up paying yesterday because if it passed the 20 days I knew I'd never see the stuff again. These are things I'm going to need for school.

"I'm starting a new teaching job at the end of August in Doha, Qatar, and I can't afford a new wardrobe. HMRC have ignored my letter and happily taken my money."

She said it has been "heartbreaking" to see the impact of the war on people she was close to in Ukraine, including one woman who has lost her 28-year-old son.

Carolyn added: "I remember one of my students telling me he couldn't hand his artwork in because he'd spent all night in a bomb shelter. I have feelings of guilt because I was only there two and a half years compared to Ukrainian colleagues who are under threat of losing their country.

"I spent the first month I got back to Wales with my cat in the house, because I just couldn't believe what had happened. When you choose to leave your home and job, it's on your terms. You say goodbye.

"I'm never going to see those kids again and tell them well done for their exams. I have so many friends there, the people are kind and gentle. It's just absolutely gutting. I would go back in a heartbeat, but at the moment it's a bit too scary."

An HMRC spokesperson said: “HMRC have been made aware of this situation and we are working with the courier to find a solution.”