Long visa waits are putting Ukrainian families at risk
Wine merchant Sam Clarke, 49, spent eight frustrating weeks attempting to get visas for the family while his wife spent time and money preparing accommodation for their arrival.
The visas were finally granted today by which time the family had reached Austria where the authorities found accommodation and school places for their children within days.
They have decided to stay where they are, feeling that Austria speedily did everything in its power to welcome them while the UK “did its best to keep them out.”
Mr Clarke said he was “bitterly disappointed” at the two-month delay which put the Ukrainian family’s lives in danger.
Accountant Andrii Nedoshytko, 36, his wife Oleksandra, 38 and their children Sofiia-Mariia, 8, Dominika, 7, and Ivan, 3 left Kyiv as the war started.
They sought shelter in the south western town of Kamianets-Podilskyi where having been sponsored by Mr Clarke through a family friend, they waited patiently for their UK visas.
Meanwhile, Mr Clarke, who founded Stannery Wine and had recently moved to a fabulous country house near Uckfield in Sussex was preparing for their arrival.
His home was once owned by Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan and the property came with a coach house the pop star used a recording studio. It had since been turned into a two-bedroom cottage ideal which Mr Clarke thought ideal for hosting Ukrainian refugees.
Mr Clarke said: “A family friend knew of this family and asked my wife Jules and I if we were serious about hosting refugees.”
“It is a serious commitment, it is six months minimum and potentially years that you may be hosting a family in your house.”
“I was inspired to help by stories of my grandfather who left university at the age of 20 to join the Army during the Second World War.”
“He fought, survived, came back suffering from shell-shock and died aged 50.”
“Compared to his sacrifice helping this family seemed a small thing that we could do.”
“Jules’ response was instantaneous. She was aware of the news as much as anyone and willing to help.”
“We have three daughters and felt that this family of five with children of a similar age needed our support which fortunately we were in a position to give.”
“It seemed unconscionable that we would not do it. There was not any hesitation on my wife’s part. Jule’s decision was immediate.”
The two families communicated by WhatsApp and after preparing visa applications on March 18 expressed the hope they would see each other for a double celebration in the UK on March 23, a birthday shared by Jules and Mariia-Sofiia.
Mr Clarke said: “On the 18th when we started talking about celebrating those birthdays together we had no concept they might not be here by then.
“Jules went into action on the empty coach house, worrying about what they would need buying mattresses and kitchen utensils, in some haste, thinking they could be here in five days.”
“Deliveries came to the house right, left and centre. Jules was very anxious that they would be made to feel welcome and would have everything they needed to feel comfortable.”
“Potentially they might be in a shell-shocked state and with young children involved they would need security and a feeling that life was OK.”
“She did a great job kitting it out. It was all ready and waiting for them within a couple of days.”
All that was needed were the visas to be granted but none came. As the days passed Mr Clarke became more and more frustrated.
He said: “We called the Home Office helpline, with our family friend holding for almost two hours at one point.”
“It seemed designed to keep us at a distance from the process and we could not find out what the delay was.”
“I contacted my MP Nusrat Ghani several times but there was nothing she could do.”
“At one point she actually suggested that the delay might have been because I had a speeding conviction and so might be suspected to be an unsuitable host.”
“In frustration, I wrote my feelings down in a long rant and sent it to her. It didn’t do much good.”
“All the time I was trying to reassure Andrii that we would get there in the end and to be patient.”
“But a week ago the family became unsafe in Kamianets-Podilskyi and moved to Austria where within days they were given temporary accommodation and school places.”
“I have just had a very emotional telephone call with him.”
“He texted on Friday afternoon saying the visas had finally been granted, and were all present and correct. I expected him to say next: ‘I look forward to seeing you in two days’ time’.”
“Instead, he said, ‘My children have already started school here in Austria’. He hopes that in six months this war will be over. Whether he is right or wrong I can’t say.”
“He said, ‘I wouldn’t feel right saying no to Austria and coming to the UK when Austria has helped me so quickly and the UK did not.’ This whole experience has been very disheartening. The good news is the family are safe and settled at last. They are fine. They’re in school. They have temporary accommodation.”
“We are now getting used to the fact they are not coming.”
“After this experience, I really do not know whether we can face putting ourselves through this process again.”
“The Home Office which processes visa applications, would not discuss the matter and referred us to the Department for Levelling Up which manages the Homes for Ukraine refugee scheme.”
The Department for Levelling Up’s Minister for Refugees Lord Harrington said: “In as little as two months we have issued over 102,000 visas, helping Ukrainians displaced from their home country to come to the UK to live, work, study and find stability here.”
“Our uncapped Ukraine Schemes were set up in record time and are one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history. We have been working hard to streamline the process, including simplifying the forms and boosting staff numbers, and we are rapidly moving towards reaching my aim of processing visas within 48 hours.”
Andrii explained how he and his family fled to Austria arriving at Innsbruck on May 5 after waiting two months for a UK visa.
They were asked to register with the police and having given biometric data and fingerprints were issued with ID cards and social security numbers on the same day.
On May 10 they moved to accommodation provided for them in a village outside Innsbruck. On May 11 Andrii’s two daughters started school
Earlier today (May 13) their three-year-old boy Ivan started his kindergarten class.
Andrii said: “We could not stay in Ukraine. The city where we were (Kamianets-Podilskyi) has a factory making automatic weapons and there are two military bases there. These are serious targets for the Russians.”
“There were two or three air raid warnings a day and the children were very frightened.”
“We expected to have to wait maybe two weeks for a visa to the UK but after two months we thought: OK, maybe it’s not coming. So we drove for two days to Austria.”
Although of fighting age, Andrii was permitted to leave the country as he has three children.
He said: “Everyone in Ukraine is very grateful to the people of Britain for everything they have done. The welcome they have offered and all the military support is very important to us.”
“We are especially grateful to Sam Clarke and his family, but we have decided to stay where we are. All of our visas finally arrived on Friday afternoon (May 13) but we could not afford to wait so long. Our children needed to be safe.”
“I understand why the UK wants to have a visa system, it is sensible, but hopefully the process can be made more efficient in the future.”
Sam Clarke’s letter to Nusrat Ghani MP
A Cruel Raising of Hopes.
I offered a home to a Ukrainian family and my offer put them in grave danger.
On the 18th of March, I was introduced to the Ukrainian Nedoshytko family, a family of five much like my own, living a life with many of the same preoccupations.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine changed that in an instant but due to the fact that Andrii Nedoshytko had more than two children, the whole family was eligible to seek refuge abroad.
Growing up with stories of my grandfather entering the Second World War whilst still at University, I was in awe of that level of sacrifice. I felt great pride in the UK when the Homes for Ukraine scheme was quickly announced, and this was heightened when some 120,000 households offered up their homes. I read that visas would be issued in “days not weeks”.
Andrii stayed up until 4am on the morning of the 19th of March filling out the arduous visa application as we exchanged Whatsapps about the prospect of spending his daughter’s birthday together (the 23rd of March).
I offered to pay for the flights, but Andrii was clear; he had savings, and with access to the internet he could continue to work and all that he needed was a haven for his family until it was safe to return to Ukraine.
In those eight weeks, my feelings of pride have turned to shame. The Homes for Ukraine ‘helpline’ appeared to be designed to keep people away from the Home Office and I was advised that my only avenue was through my local MP. My local MP went from ignoring me, to fobbing me off to providing me with inaccurate information.
Despite this, I continued to reassure Andrii that progress was being made and that we would get there.
The situation in Kiev become too dangerous so Andrii moved his family to the south western town of Kamianets-Podilskyi, but all the while trusting me and trusting the UK. A week ago the situation in Kamianets-Podilski became too dangerous so the Nedoshytko family sought refuge in Austria.
Within four days they were given accommodation, school places for the two girls and kindergarten place for their three-year-old son Ivan.
Understandably, Andrii has decided that he cannot leave his family in this state of limbo, he cannot wait for the Home Office to issue a visa or even to get in contact with me and he has decided to look to another country in Europe for a place of safety.
Shame has turned to anger and guilt. Back in March, Andrii and his family could have applied to many other countries for refugee visas and they would have been safe.
Why did the UK launch the Homes for Ukraine scheme if they were unwilling or incapable of making it happen? Is the failure of the Home for Ukraine scheme due to incompetence, a policy to limit the number of Ukrainian refugees in the UK or both?
I feel let down by Boris Johnson, Priti Patel and the home office or my local MP, Nusrat Ghani but far more importantly they have let down and put in danger a Ukrainian family who relied upon their words.
I know that I am not alone in this and that only accentuates the sense that the UK is a long way from being the same place that it was in the time of my Grandfather.