As UK offers homes to Ukrainians, process lags goodwill

LONDON — At a church in east London this month, Imogen Moore-Shelley held her 6-month-old balanced on her hip as she scribbled an import...

LONDON — At a church in east London this month, Imogen Moore-Shelley held her 6-month-old balanced on her hip as she scribbled an important message on a poster: “Helpful information for sponsors “.

She then handed her marker to Natalia, a Ukrainian who had moved into Ms Moore-Shelley’s house a week earlier. Natalia then penned the message in Ukrainian as people entered the church for a lunch with refugees and Londoners opening their homes to them.

The story of Natalia and Ms Moore-Shelley – of a woman fleeing war and finding refuge with a stranger 1,300 miles away – served as a promising example of a smooth transition to safety in Britain. But not all experience with a UK visa scheme for Ukrainians fleeing the war has been so easy, and many sponsors gathered in church, unable to get clear answers from the government, turned to each other. others for advice.

weeks later Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, and amid widespread criticism that it was not doing enough to help, the British government launched Homes for Ukraine, a program intended to give Ukrainians a fast path to safety. But although tens of thousands of Britons have expressed an interest in playing host, the rollout has been painfully slow.

Aid groups, potential hosts and Ukrainians say that the program is fraught with challenges, including a difficult application process and significant delays in visa processing. They also express concerns about security and the lack of support to access schools and other vital services in Britain.

The scheme was meant to be a response to earlier criticism that Britain had been slow to respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Initially, as members of the European Union opened their borders, Britain, who left the block in 2021only allowed those who have immediate family in the country even apply for a visa.

Homes for Ukraine aimed to broaden the UK response, although the scheme still required reducing some red tape, including the requirement that hosts come into direct contact with Ukrainians in need of accommodation. Problems with this matching process have multiplied.

As of May 16, approximately 53,800 Ukrainians had arrived in Britain, with 20,800 joining their immediate family members and 33,000 arriving through the sponsorship scheme. More than 6.4 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, according to the UN.

Mark Lillicrap, 58, who lives in St. Albans, a town north of London, and his wife have been trying for seven weeks to secure visas for a family currently in Hamburg, Germany, but he said the process has been “terrible” amid “staggering bureaucracy”.

Two weeks ago, she was told that both parents had been approved but that their baby – who does not have a passport as he was born just weeks before the start of the war – was to be seen at a center for visa application hundreds of kilometers from Hamburg. Many others described similar obstacles.

The church lunch was meant to help build community, but it was also a reflection of the exasperation felt by many sponsors.

Ms Moore-Shelley, 34, who organized the event, said she and her husband had felt helpless watching the horrors of war unfold on the news and that the opening of their home was “a little way to do something. ”

But Ms Moore-Shelley described a confusing application process, a week-long visa wait and a struggle to find someone to host. Eventually, her husband asked a Ukrainian waiter at a local cafe he frequents if he knew anyone who needed help.

The server, Sasha Druz, 27, put the couple in touch with Natalia, whom they sponsored. When Natalia arrived this month, no checks by the local council had been carried out at the couple’s home.

“We just sort of cracked up, basically,” said Ms Moore-Shelley, who, with support and translation help from Mr Druz, is helping Natalia navigate life in Britain. Natalia requested that only her first name be used due to concerns about her family’s safety in Ukraine.

Beyond the heaviness of the program and its delays, security also raises concerns. Ad-hoc matching – including through unofficial websites and Facebook groups – makes the system vulnerable to exploitation.

The United Nations refugee agency expressed concern in April after reports that vulnerable Ukrainians were being targeted in Britain by unfit or predatory hosts and called for better protection and verification.

A government spokesman said the scheme was ‘designed with safeguards in place, including checks by the Interior Ministry and the local council’, adding that Ukrainian refugees should have access to healthcare , education, benefits and employment support “on the same footing as British nationals.

But local councils say they are struggling to keep up with these checks and their resources are already stretched thin.

James Jamieson, chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents 350 councils across England and Wales, said in a statement that authorities needed better and more timely information on Ukrainian arrivals from the government and hosts to provide adequate support and ensure security.

Many who gathered at the church in East London last week raised similar concerns.

Oksana Voronova, 44, who arrived in London from Ukraine two weeks ago with her 12-year-old son and was staying with a former colleague, said that while she was moved by the outpouring of support, she did not had not yet been able to enroll her son, who speaks fluent English, in school.

While websites and Facebook pages have sprung up to fill the void in connecting sponsors with Ukrainians, so have anecdotal reports of abuse, including accounts that some hosts only do so. for monthly payments of 350 pounds, or about $430, which the government has promised. To give them.

A woman, Rosa, 26, who has also requested that her surname not be used for security reasons, has moved into the home of a British couple she found online. But she said they had been hostile and the situation was tense.

She said the East London lunch rekindled her hope. “I was so stressed and then I came here and realized not everyone was like them,” she said.

For potential hosts across Britain, concern has grown over the difficulties of bringing Ukrainians into the country, given the complexity of the application process and the long wait for visas.

Rosie Rafferty, 53, who lives in Cheltenham, England, had planned to sponsor a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman and her 14-year-old brother after connecting with them on Facebook. But after waiting more than seven weeks for visas, she said, the siblings gave up.

In a statement, the government said it was aware of the application delays of more than a month and called them “unacceptable”, noting that changes had been made to speed up the process.

A frustrated group of potential sponsors are now taking legal action against the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Homes for Ukraine programme, claiming that promises of streamlining were not enough.

London friends Kitty Hamilton and Katherine Klinger are part of the legal action and hold twice-weekly protests outside the Home Office in London with the Vigil for Visas group.

“There are all sorts of different ways that this particular program, as beautiful and generous as it looks on the outside, is actually not particularly well designed,” Ms Hamilton said.

The Ukrainian family she is sponsoring arrived two weeks ago after a month-and-a-half wait for visas, Ms Hamilton added.

Ms. Klinger is still awaiting the arrival of a family of eight whom she is sponsoring. Their visas were recently approved – after six and a half weeks. “It’s basically a totally unsuitable visa form for people fleeing a war zone,” she said.

But Ms Hamilton and Ms Klinger said the generosity shown by tens of thousands of people across Britain, as well as efforts by local authorities, showed a wider willingness to help.

“I actually think it’s a real testament to the goodwill of the British people, which has been consistently underestimated by this government,” Ms Hamilton said. “They judged us by their own standards and they deceived us.”

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Newsrust - US Top News: As UK offers homes to Ukrainians, process lags goodwill
As UK offers homes to Ukrainians, process lags goodwill
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