“This reminds me of the Soviet Union,” joked the elderly Ukrainian woman as we joined the queue snaking out of the UK Government’s visa centre in Warsaw. Of course, we had expected a queue — what we hadn’t expected was the overwhelming sense of chaos. Within minutes, it became clear that processing new visas was out of the question.
A few days earlier, my wife and I had met her Ukrainian family at 4am, 24 hours after they fled their home in Kyiv. We had flown out to meet her mother, two brothers (aged 8 and 15), and female cousin (16). Just like thousands of other refugees, we were crammed into a small, rented flat on the border of the old town.
We had little idea how the UK government would handle their visa applications, but I feared the process would be like everything else involving the Home Office: slow, inflexible, and infused with suspicion. My wife and I experienced this first-hand when applying for her own visa. Compared to the digitised registry office in Kyiv where we had married two years ago, the Home Office proved incapable of executing its most basic functions, hamstrung by a combination of bureaucracy and xenophobia.
Back then, none of her family could have imagined that they would be forced to flee their homes amid artillery strikes and rumours that Putin’s mercenaries were roaming the streets. But after enduring a day of bombings, they had little choice. Their initial plan was to drive to the city of Lutsk near the Polish border, where they had family. But Lutsk had also been bombed, the roads heading West were blocked, and there were reports that Belarusian forces were poised to sweep in from the North.
So they drove south, leaving behind everything they couldn’t carry. Trying to avoid the main roads, they travelled for 16 hours, stopping finally at Khmelnytskyi. The following morning, as the situation became clearer — and as the scale of Ukraine’s heroic military resistance became obvious — they eventually decided to risk heading to Lutsk. After much agonising, the family collected a cousin, said goodbye to their father (who, like all men aged between 18 and 60, had to remain behind and be ready to be called up to fight).
Back at the visa centre, Home Office staff — some of whom had been flown in overnight — rushed from one group to the next, trying to explain what little information they knew to those who spoke little or no English. They were dealing with a WiFi network that kept crashing, laptops that had no chargers, and IT systems that stubbornly refused to accept their login details. At one point, someone copied my family’s passport numbers onto a piece of paper and handed it to someone else, who immediately copied the numbers onto another piece of paper, which was passed to a third person — who promptly put the slip of paper in the bin.
It took about a week for their visas to be issued, even though it was clear that many at the Home Office and visa centres were working throughout the night. The government has now announced a 48-hour target for processing applications, but it remains to be seen whether this is anything other than wishful thinking: I suspect my family won’t be the last to flee Ukraine with little more than the clothes on their back, only to shell out for a hotel while they wait for the wheels of Britain’s Rolls-Royce bureaucracy to turn.
The government insists that detailed security checks are vital to stop spies and people traffickers, while ignoring the lumbering clunkiness that defines its system as a whole. First, the Home Office in London sets the rules, and applications are conducted on the GOV.UK website. Then, an outsourced company called TLS Connect collects documents and biometrics at visa centres across the world (the one in Warsaw uses temporary offices inside a hotel). Applications are then sent back to Home Office centres across the UK. Here, staff reportedly use three completely different and incompatible systems, some of which are 20 years old, to check documents and run background checks. The applications, if successful, are then sent back to TLS Connect to distribute the visas and stamped passports. Once in the UK, this paper visa is then used to collect an ID permit.
Of course, my Ukrainian family are grateful for the sanctuary they can find in the UK: their visas grant them rights to work, study, and claim state support. The alternative — remaining in Kyiv — doesn’t bear thinking about.
But the uncomfortable truth is that no visa can solve the more serious problems they face. While Kyiv is neither Mariupol nor Kharkiv, it is hard to predict what, if anything, my family will have to return to. The small restaurant they own lies in a village on the city’s outskirts that has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the area. Tales from their employees of looting Russian soldiers using the business as a base provide some warning of what to expect, but the revelations at Bucha still leave us numb. Yet still they remain certain they want to go back.
What will they do in the meantime? Well, it all depends on whether they manage to escape the complex web of Britain’s bureaucratic state. For instance, everyone in the UK knows the reams of paperwork involved in registering for a GP. Yet even I couldn’t help but laugh when my eight-year-old brother-in-law was told to fill out three forms about his alcohol consumption. Meanwhile, in an effort to register them for under-16 Oyster cards, I have become trapped between several different Transport for London systems, none of which will read their passports to verify their ages. At one point, I was invited to go to a TfL office which had been closed for several years.
Contrast this with the response of friends, neighbours and strangers, and it’s hard not to feel anything but exasperation. Since returning, we have been overwhelmed by spontaneous acts of generosity: donations of clothes, toys, and electronics; invitations to join sports clubs and visit museums; offers of after-school lessons from teachers who are happy to put in a word to get the kids registered at schools. One neighbour, out of the blue, announced he had tickets for a Spurs game, collected the elder brother, and handed him a white replica shirt (the boy, at least until now, preferred Manchester City, home of the Ukrainian defender Oleksandr Zinchenko — but we don’t tell our neighbour).
And this spirit is being channelled across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have signed up for the government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme. There is a widespread, almost populist, demand that Britain do more to help. Yet at every turn, the Home Office seems intent on making the system for registering for the scheme impossible to negotiate.
It is hard to imagine those fleeing the Blitz being found homes in the countryside under today’s conditions. Only yesterday, for example, it was reported that councils have denied applications from volunteers whose houses have plug sockets “that endangered children because they were placed too low in the walls”. Elsewhere, hosts have been rejected “because ponds in gardens needed to be drained before child refugees could move in”.
This, then, is my overwhelming impression of these strange few weeks: the enormous, perhaps unexpected, generosity of the British people, contrasted with the suffocating bureaucracy of the British state. It is only through the fresh eyes of my family that I realise how resigned to this shameful state we have become. We, not to mention those fleeing war, deserve better.