Tuesday, 8 March 2022

Ukraine war: Refugee's daughter says there's a risk of riots at visa centre

By Joseph Lee & Mary O’ConnorBBC News

Image source, Marianne KayImage caption,
Antonina Kolodii, 79, is trying to get to the UK to join her daughter, Marianne Kay

The daughter of a Ukrainian refugee has warned of the anger and frustration of people waiting for visas at an “understaffed” UK application centre.

Marianne Kay from Yorkshire says if delays continue much longer “it does feel like there will be riots”.

She has travelled to Rzeszow in Poland to help her 79-year-old mother Antonina Kolodii to safety in the UK.

They will have to wait a week for an appointment, as others gather outside the centre in freezing temperatures.

MPs have criticised the Home Office for a slow response to the flight of more than two million people from Ukraine, saying those seeking sanctuary are being held up by bureaucracy or turned away.

Home Office minister Kevin Foster said about 500 visas had been granted, but he defended the need for security checks, claiming officials had seen people in Calais with false documents claiming to be Ukrainian.

But French authorities in Calais repeated their criticism of the UK’s “lack of humanity”, saying almost 300 Ukrainian refugees have been turned back by the UK Border Force, while hundreds were stuck trying to complete paperwork for visas.

At the Rzeszow visa application centre, Marianne says the situation is “desperate” and tense, with people “shouting at each other all the time”.

“It’s quite clear that this place is understaffed quite severely so that there is absolutely no way that people who work here can process so many applications,” she says.

She left her job and children at home in Yorkshire on Friday to travel to Poland and help her mother get to the UK, but the earliest appointment they could get for the biometric checks was 14 March.

Image source, Marianne KayImage caption,
Marianne says there is no order or queuing system for visas, with many people waiting from the early morning

Tory MP Tracy Crouch said in the Commons that some people had been told there were no appointments until the end of April.

Marianne says crowds including elderly people and young children gather from the early morning, with some people left outside in freezing temperatures.

“It’s really inappropriate to treat people who haven’t slept for days and nights for a long time,” she says.

“They have crossed the border in the cold, in the dark, in difficult conditions. And they can’t cope with the situation very well.”

She says she understands the need for security checks, but refugees have been grappling with contradictory advice.

“You can’t tell people that they can apply for something and then make it completely impossible to do so and change rules every day,” she says.

She adds that there is only one biometrics machine in Rzeszow. Other refugees have told the BBC they arrived in Lviv, western Ukraine, only to find the biometrics machine had been removed and the visa centre closed due to the increasing dangers of the war.

Image source, EPAImage caption,
Two million people have fled Ukraine, the UNHCR says, mostly into neighbouring countries such as Poland and Romania

Unlike the European Union – which is allowing Ukrainians three-year residency without a visa – the UK has retained controls on entry.

There are two visa routes for those fleeing Russia’s assault on Ukraine – one for people with family in the UK, and another, which Mr Foster said is being set up “at pace”, requiring a British sponsor.

Responding to an urgent question in the House of Commons, Mr Foster told MPs that a new visa processing centre would be established in the northern French city of Lille and that officials were looking at setting up transport from Calais to the new offices.

He insisted ministers would “not take chances with the security of this country and our people” – citing the Salisbury Novichok attack in 2018 – where Russian nationals used a nerve agent in an attempt to murder the former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia.

“A crucial part of the application process is providing biometrics so we can be sure applicants are who they say they are”, he said.

Meanwhile, the government has created a new minister for refugees in the Home Office and the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities.

Richard Harrington, who stood down as an MP in 2019, will be made a life peer.

Criticising the absence of Home Secretary Priti Patel in the Commons, Labour’s Yvette Cooper called for visa centres to be established at all major travel points, on-the-spot security checks and for Ukrainians to be given emergency visas.

“The government should not be continuing to change this in a chaotic way, rather than opening the system properly,” she added.

Ms Cooper criticised the apparent lack of clarity over the locations and operation of visa centres.

Media caption,
Watch: Yvette Cooper calls for emergency visa centres for Ukrainians over UK’s “chaotic” response

She said: “Yesterday the home secretary told the House twice that a visa centre en route to Calais has now been set up but it still doesn’t exist.

“The foreign secretary just said it might be in Lille – nearly 72 miles from Calais.

“The Home Office said this morning that no decision had been taken. Well, which is it? Has it? Where is it? Can people get there yet?”

A string of Conservative MPs joined opposition politicians in demanding further and faster action from the government in helping Ukrainian refugees enter the UK.

Conservative Mark Harper, a former immigration minister, said even if security checks were needed, the government needed to “grip the pace of this” and called for a minister to set out the details of the humanitarian sponsorship route within days – not weeks or months..

Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke said the speed of response was a “disgrace” during “a war of the likes that has not been seen for 80 years in Europe”.

This report is based on interviews by BBC special correspondent Lucy Manning and Phil Kemp.

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