LONDON — At a church in east London this month, Imogen Moore-Shelley held her six-month-old child on her hip as she scribbled an important message on a poster: “Useful information for sponsors.”
She then gave her marker to Natalia, a Ukrainian woman who had moved into Mrs. Moore-Shelley’s home a week earlier. Natalia then wrote the message in Ukrainian as people poured into the church for lunch, gathering refugees and Londoners opening their homes to them.
The story of Natalia and Mrs. Moore-Shelley—of a woman on the run from war who finds shelter with a stranger 1,300 miles away—served as a hopeful example of a smooth transition to security in Britain. But not every experience of a UK visa program intended for Ukrainians fleeing war has been so easy, and many of the sponsors gathered at the church, unable to get clear answers from the government, sought each other out. for advice.
Weeks after 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 designed to provide Ukrainians with a fast track to safety. But despite tens of thousands of Britons showing an interest in playing host, the rollout has been painfully slow.
Aid agencies, potential hosts and Ukrainians say the program is fraught with pitfalls, including a difficult application process and significant delays in visa processing. They also express concerns about security and a lack of support in accessing schools and other essential services in Britain.
The program was intended to respond to earlier criticisms that Britain had been slow to respond to the Ukrainian refugee crisis. Initially, when members of the European Union threw open borders, Britain, which left the bloc in 2021, only allowed those with immediate family in the country to even apply for a visa.
Homes for Ukraine was intended to broaden the British response, even though the program still required some red tape, including the condition that hosts contact Ukrainians in need of housing directly. Problems with this matching process have grown.
By May 16, about 53,800 Ukrainians had arrived in Britain, with 20,800 joining their immediate relatives and 33,000 arriving under the sponsorship program. More than 6.4 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the war, according to the United Nations.
Mark Lillicrap, 58, who lives in St. Albans, a city north of London, and his wife have been trying to get a visa for seven weeks for a family currently in Hamburg, Germany, but he said the process is amid ” staggering bureaucracy.”
Two weeks ago, he was told that both parents had been approved, but that their baby — who has no passport as he was born just weeks before the start of the war — was to be seen at a visa application center hundreds of miles from Hamburg. Many others described similar obstacles.
The luncheon at the church was meant to build community, but it was also a reflection of the annoyance many sponsors felt.
Ms Moore-Shelley, 34, who organized the event, said she and her husband had felt helpless seeing the horrors of the war on the news and that opening their home was “a little way we could do something.” to do. †
But Ms. Moore-Shelley described a confusing application process, a weeks-long visa wait, and a struggle to find someone to host. Finally, her husband asked a Ukrainian waiter at a local cafe he frequents if he knew anyone who needed help.
The waiter, Sasha Druz, 27, introduced the couple to Natalia, who they sponsored. When Natalia arrived this month, the municipality had not yet carried out any checks on the couple’s home.
“We kind of just kept going,” said Ms. Moore-Shelley, who, along with the support and translation help from Mr. Druz, helps Natalia navigate life in Britain. Natalia asked to use only her first name due to concerns about her family’s safety in Ukraine.
In addition to being cumbersome and full of delays, there are also security concerns. The ad hoc matching – also via unofficial websites and Facebook groups – makes the system vulnerable to abuse.
The United Nations Refugee Agency expressed concern in April after reports that vulnerable Ukrainians in Britain were being targeted by inappropriate or predatory hosts and called for increased protection and vetting.
A government spokesman said the program was “designed with safeguards, including controls by the Home Office and the local council”, adding that Ukrainian refugees should have access to health care, education, benefits and job support “on the same footing as British nationals.” ”
But local councils say they struggle to keep up with those checks and their resources are already scarce.
James Jamieson, the chairman of the Local Government Association, which represents 350 councils across England and Wales, said in a statement that authorities needed better and more up-to-date information on Ukrainian arrivals from both the government and hosts to provide adequate support and to ensure that safety.
Many of those who gathered at the church in east London last week expressed similar concerns.
Oksana Voronova, 44, who arrived in London from Ukraine two weeks ago with her 12-year-old son and is received by a former colleague, said that although she was moved by the outpouring of support, she was not yet able to support her son, who speaks fluent English, enroll in school.
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
Zelensky argues for an even tougher line. Speaking via video to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky called on world powers to go much further to punish Moscow. Russia, which normally had a strong presence at the meeting, was a pariah this year.
As websites and Facebook pages have sprung up to fill the gap in matching sponsors with Ukrainians, there are also anecdotal reports of abuse, including accounts that some hosts only do it for the monthly payments of £350, about $430. , which the government has pledged to give them.
A woman, Rosa, 26, who also asked not to use her last name due to security concerns, moved into the home of a British couple she found online. But she said they had been unfriendly and the situation was tense.
Rose said lunch in East London had raised her hopes. “I had been so stressed out, and then I came here and realized that not everyone is like her,” she said.
Concerns have increased for potential hosts across Britain over the difficulties of getting Ukrainians into the country, given the complex application process and lengthy visa waits.
Rosie Rafferty, 53, who lives in Cheltenham, England, planned to sponsor a 22-year-old Ukrainian woman and her 14-year-old brother after contacting 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 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 is now taking legal action against the Interior Ministry, which oversees the Homes for Ukraine program, saying promises to streamline were not enough.
Kitty Hamilton and Katherine Klinger, friends from London, are part of the legal action, holding demonstrations twice a week outside the Home Office in London with the group Vigil for Visas.
“There are all kinds of different ways that this particular scheme, as beautiful and generous as it looks from the outside, is actually not particularly well designed,” said Ms. Hamilton.
The Ukrainian family she sponsors arrived two weeks ago after waiting a month and a half for visas, Ms Hamilton added.
Ms. Klinger is still waiting for the arrival of a family of eight that she sponsors. Their visas were recently approved – after six and a half weeks. “It’s basically a visa form that is totally unsuitable for people fleeing a war zone,” she said.
But both Ms Hamilton and Ms Klinger said the generosity of tens of thousands across Britain, as well as the efforts of local authorities, showed a wider will 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,” said Ms Hamilton. “They judged us by their own standards and they got us wrong.”