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How Britain betrayed my Ukrainian family We have been crushed by Home Office bureaucracy

Next station: suffocating bureaucracy (Britain (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Next station: suffocating bureaucracy (Britain (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)


April 8, 2022   5 mins

“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.


Jacob Reynolds is partnerships manager at the Academy of Ideas.

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Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

The title of this article should be changed. It is insulting and unnecessary. There was no betrayal of the author’s family. They got visas, accommodation and a warm welcome. I have no doubt once the official wheels have turned, they will have school places, doctors appointments and the rest. It might be a bit frustrating though, for the record, I have never found signing up to a new GP particularly onerous.
The British public insist that the authorities know who is coming into the country and sometimes it leads to a bit of delay. The reason they insist on this is down to 20 years of EU open borders as well as ridiculously high levels of illegal immigration. We believe being British is a precious birthright and should only be shared with foreigners who will contribute to, and not endanger, the country’s future. We are happy to help refugees fleeing mortal danger but not anyone in the world who can afford a plane ticket or a place on a people smuggler’s dinghy.
For the author to call this xenophobic is outrageous.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

I agree but we do need the checks. One host of a mother and her children in Britain told the mother you now have a relationship with me. Obviously his motives were not pure and people like this need to be sifted out.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

Rather makes the point about our useless bureaucracy that he wasn’t welded out – despite all the checks.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

The sub-ed who added that title needs firing.

David Bell
David Bell
2 years ago
Reply to  Matt M

Afford a plane ticket? So refugees should be subjected to a means test and rejected if reasonably well off?

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  David Bell

Away with your fallacy. Plane tickets are perfectly affordable from many countries.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Al M

Affordable for some . .

Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
2 years ago

So the four individuals got their visas – which given the situation in Ukraine probably means a permanent right of residence in the UK for themselves and very likely other family members in the future – in about a week. Some “betrayal”. In Ireland its been reported that many families who initially took refugees into their homes have already returned them like Christmas puppies to large public temporary accommodation centre, saying they’re unable to cope with the stress and cost of hosting them. Refugees are being crowded into often wildly unsuitable buildings such as Dublin city centre churches. Serious social problems are brewing as a result. Some level of processing before the State makes an open-ended commitment to refugees it might not be able to honour is not inappropriate.

Last edited 2 years ago by Stephen Walshe
Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Nobody disagrees with that, nor did the article. It concentrated on the inefficiency and stupidity of the processes, not the equity of the principles.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago

Yes it does. The article is titled “How Britain betrayed my Ukrainian family”. The writer himself calls the Home Office xenophobic.
I’m sure he and his family are extremely disturbed by the whole situation, they have my deepest sympathy and I wish them the best but both charges above are ludicrous and spoil an otherwise interesting piece.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matt M
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

Yes, many of us can sympathise with the author’s frustration with bureaucratic chaos and absurd safety first regulations.
What undermines that sympathy is the suggestion that the sort of bureaucratic inefficiency we are all familiar with constitutes a betrayal of his family and that they are crushed by it. It is a hysterical overreaction that suggests the author is totally unfamiliar even by repute with the normal inefficiencies of bureaucratic procedures.
I am actually impressed that the visas were forthcoming so promptly given the chaos of wartime Ukraine.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I think this was written from the perspective of a husband whose wife has a Ukrainian background, and wishes to support their relatives. It’s not such an unusual situation and should be encouraged. Two “known quantities” so to speak with no “10% to the Big Man” going on in between.
What we are seeing is the result of a people smuggling operating completely unfettered across European borders, with little or no sanction from political elites, meaning simple acts of humanity such as this get smothered in red tape.
I read about the Ireland situation – such that there is – and it is an utter triumph of virtue signalling over grim reality, in case you were wondering where my sympathies lay more generally.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I have a received a family of 5 Ukrainians in Ireland, and I’m incredibly proud of how well our systems are adjusting and coping. Three weeks here, they have PPS numbers and are already receiving social welfare payments. They were able to get medical cards as our GP practice agreed to take on any Ukrainians hosted by patients, dentist appointments have been set up and the 3 children all have schools. That in addition to all the generosity of friends and family. Yes, I had to do a lot of phoning & emailing, but to be honest, I’m flabbergasted.
I am optimistic about their future in Ireland. Once the parents learn English, they can’t wait to find work. The Dad didn’t have to remain in Ukraine because is the father do 3+ children. Their 18 year old son did have to stay and may yet get called up. I’m glad that so many are stepping up to help these war refugees.
ï»żThat said, I think that talk of taking in 200,000 refugees is completely unrealistic for a nation of 5 million.

Last edited 2 years ago by Miriam UĂ­
Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Miriam UĂ­

Good to hear it is working out for them Miriam and good for you for helping out. Very admirable.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I expect not a few will find their way over here, in time. I’m not complaining, as long as they are who they say they are. I read somewhere that our Albanian gangster problem arose from that source in 1999.

Sean Meister
Sean Meister
2 years ago

It’s not the UK’s job to invite every nation’s refugees to these shores. Especially when they are on the far side of Europe. We would have been far better to have given the resources to countries Ukrainians prefer going to like Hungary, Slovakia and Poland rather than do the usual dishing out of visas.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

Yet again the ‘triumph of passion over reason’.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

They’re relatives of the author. Does that make a difference for you?

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  Sean Meister

The Afghans and Hong Kongites are much further away than that. Ukrainians will probably fit in well here and go back when they can.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

The family we are hosting filled the forms in online when the system opened and had their documents a week later. Given the unprecedented situation, and the obvious need for checks, I thought that was pretty good. Yes the form is unnecessarily complicated, but possible to a person of average intelligence.

They are competent people and are just getting on with things like GP forms (we also laughed at the obsession with alcohol consumption.) They don’t expect to be hand held every step of the way.

At this end it now seems to be the local council who are responsible for assistance – a genuine telephone conversation with our County Council:

“We are arranging a welcome pack for them with information and the initial £200 grant. We’ll give it to them when they arrive at Stansted.”

“They have a car, they’re arriving at Dover.”

“Oh is that in Hampshire?”

“No, Kent.”

“Oh well I’ve a meeting this afternoon I’ll get back to you on how we get the pack to them. You’ll also be contacted to check your accommodation is suitable.”

Ten days ago, never heard from them since.

Matt M
Matt M
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

Good for you Martin. Glad to hear they are settling in.
I have never spoken to any council service that didn’t sound like the one you describe.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

So you’ve found a government department less efficient than the Home Office?

Adrian Doble
Adrian Doble
2 years ago

Go down the beach and lift a few stones. It’s not long before you find a Brit hater looking up, so devoid of confidence that it has to put others down to build itself up.

R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

They should be happy they’re getting unfettered access to the fruits of another country after passing through half a dozen safe ones. I assume 90% never plan on returning.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

A decision sadly that many will live to regret by the time ‘Social Services’ and other organs of state ineptitude have got hold of them.
We need a huge, high vis’ sign at Dover reading, ” Turn back now while you still can”. “

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I doubt France would let them back in.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

Probably the Afghans, the Hong Kongites and the boat people cannot return but I am sure that many Ukrainians will go back if peace ever comes in their land.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago

I have British ancestry and am part of the Commonwealth – I am used to being treated like smelly shit by dodgy representatives of the UK Home Office.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago

Your surname goes against you I’m afraid.Too redolent of Apartheid, the beastly Boers etc.
You have to remember the British Civil Service, including the wretched Home Office is riddled from top to bottom with spiteful bigots, most of whom are closet marxists of one variety or another. They detest everything that made Britain great, such as the Empire, and thus take every opportunity to humiliate and harass people such as your good self.
It is a national disgrace but sadly we (recently) missed the opportunity to reform it and are now stuck with having to endure this ‘putrid Albatross’ hanging around our neck for eons to come.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

I couldn’t agree more. On every British embassy in the world we fly an LGBT flag. Great Britain? Sure.

Al M
Al M
2 years ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

Well, quite. My own reading of this article (despite the lurid headline) is one family’s more than reasonable desire to escape a war zone and join their relatives used as lens for focusing on the workings of the dreaded, inefficient Blob. No ingratitude or dislike of the UK wrote large at all.

Last edited 2 years ago by Al M
Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago

The Home Office are a law to themselves and often do not accommodate even the government.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Tony Conrad

Or even their own minister of state.

Mary Thomas
Mary Thomas
2 years ago

I feel a little aggrieved at this article. Sure, the Home Office is clunky but it is dealing with constantly changing situations and mostly between people who can’t speak the other’s language. I suppose the question to ask is, is there an absolute duty to provide entry to everyone who wants it? If there is, fine, if not though some degree of care and checking is required simply to keep track of people and their needs.
I do know there’s people trafficking, sex trafficking and other frauds of various types going on. If the Home Office ignores this and it comes out later there will be the usual moaning and attacking from all and sundry. Best to delay for a couple of days and get it right?

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
2 years ago

A likely even more unpleasant read would be an account of how Poland’s handling far greater numbers of refugees with far fewer resources. I imagine they’ll be putting us to shame.

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago
Reply to  Tom Watson

That is mainly because they are geographically far closer, and are more culturally aligned (Lvov or Lviv was part of Poland in 1939), but why say they have far fewer resources? My understanding is that the UK government is giving financial support, which is clearly both wise and right, especially as no one knows what the position will be in, say, 6 months, but most of all, Poland has space like we do not; our density of population is more than three times higher than theirs. We haven’t yet found housing for the Afghan refugees from August last year, and then there are the HK refugees, all deserving, and probably potentially good citizens.

Miriam UĂ­
Miriam UĂ­
2 years ago

I have a received a family of 5 Ukrainians in Ireland, and I’m incredibly proud of how well our systems are adjusting and coping. Three weeks here, they have PPS numbers and are already receiving social welfare payments. They were able to get medical cards as our GP practice agreed to take on any Ukrainians hosted by patients, dentist appointments have been set up and the 3 children all have schools. That in addition to all the generosity of friends and family. Yes, I had to do a lot of phoning & emailing, but to be honest, I’m flabbergasted.
I am optimistic about their future in Ireland. Once the parents learn English, they can’t wait to find work. The Dad didn’t have to remain in Ukraine because is the father do 3+ children. Their 18 year old son did have to stay and may yet get called up. I’m glad that so many are stepping up to help these war refugees.
That said, I think that talk of taking in 200,000 refugees is completely unrealistic for a nation of 5 million.

Last edited 2 years ago by Miriam UĂ­
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago

It’s a pity this writer lacks the compassion and insight to understand his own bigotry – referring to xenophobia without evidence and citing betrayal by people doing their best in the circumstances.
Yet another me me me whinger lashing out wildly. Could the Unherd editor maybe do their job and point out the Unherd readership won’t tolerate such wild accusations?

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Unherd gives space for many and various view points; I for one am very glad of that. The lack of variety is in the comments!

Colin Elliott
Colin Elliott
2 years ago

Thank God our armed services aren’t like the Home Office, yet, but there are signs, such as replacing the priority of fighting wars with worrying about diversity, and replacing tried and tested methods of recruitment by outsourcing to an organisation which, blindingly obviously, will have zero relevant experience. Indeed, is not visa processing outsourced?
Personally, I should have thought a few basic tweaks could have helped – a special application tailored to the circumstances using Ukrainian, grouping together family members, the immediate employment of English-speaking Ukrainians recommended by the Ukrainian government (I heard one Ukrainian say that most Ukrainians under 30 could speak English), the formation of teams with someone in charge with discretion to make instant decisions in the event of an anomaly, a monitoring application to allow immediate check on the status, and the ability to distribute authority to enter in a paperless manner.
The most important thing currently is to assist Ukraine in repelling the invasion effectively, yet I listened to a programme on which every question about doing so was avoided by the governments numerous opponents by immediately talking about the current delays in admitting refugees.

Katy Hibbert
Katy Hibbert
2 years ago

Nobody’s forcing you to come here.

Andrew McDonald
Andrew McDonald
2 years ago
Reply to  Katy Hibbert

No! But we come here to argue, don’t we, not just for another scratching post.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
2 years ago

We certainly need people to come here and point out our corrupt schools, universities and even some churches, not to mention some of the government’s many perverse practices. We are spiritually dying in this place.

Last edited 2 years ago by Tony Conrad