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Refugees are choosing to return to war-torn Ukraine exhausted by the 'hunger and homelessness' inflicted by the long wait for UK visas

Joshua Zitser   

Refugees are choosing to return to war-torn Ukraine exhausted by the 'hunger and homelessness' inflicted by the long wait for UK visas
  • Insider spoke to three families returning to Ukraine because of the UK visa backlog.
  • They said they could not afford housing in Europe while waiting for their visas to be approved.

Natalia Kulish, 34, had an agonizing choice to make.

She could stay in Poland with her two children, facing homelessness if the family's visas to the UK took much longer to be issued. Or she could return to war-torn Ukraine, reuniting her children with their father but putting them at risk of being bombed.

Kulish chose the latter, and she's one of several families of refugees who have reluctantly decided to turn back to Ukraine instead of waiting indefinitely for the Home Office to process their paperwork.

Kulish fled Dnipro, in western Ukraine, with her children — Mariia, 11, and Luke, 4 — on March 16.

They traveled to Warsaw, where a Polish man agreed to temporarily house them in his apartment while they waited for their visas to be issued.

They applied for the Homes for Ukraine program — in which people and organizations in the UK can be matched with individuals fleeing Ukraine and offer them a place to live — on March 18, the day it launched. Kulish was told she could expect to receive a visa within four days, she told Insider.

The Kulish family then planned to fly to the UK to start a new life with a sponsor family in Hampshire, England, or so they hoped.

Two weeks passed, and the visa had still not been issued. By this point, Kulish and her family were no longer able to stay in the one-bedroom Warsaw apartment.

"In Warsaw, there were a lot of people who came from Ukraine, and there was no opportunity to rent housing at an affordable price," she told Insider.

Facing the possibility of homelessness, Kulish decided to return to her home in Ukraine on April 2.

Back in Dnipro, Kulish said, "the nights pass anxiously" as she and her children listen to sirens blare and wait impatiently for their visas to be approved.

On Thursday night, another family returned to their home in a war zone.

Nina, 43, Liliia, 21, and newborn baby, Platon, escaped to Poland from Ukraine by foot last month.

Once in Poland, they applied for Homes for Ukraine visas. Leila Majewska, who is Polish but lives in Derby, England, matched with Nina, Liliia, and Platon on a Facebook group.

Majewska immediately started preparing her home for the family. She bought a cot and a pram and eagerly awaited their arrival.

As the visa application process dragged on, Majewska flew to Warsaw and visited a visa center with them. Majewska said the family was told the visas would take five days to process.

Meanwhile, the family stayed for free at a Polish woman's house.

But 17 days passed, their sponsor said, and Nina and Liliia realized that staying in Warsaw indefinitely was no longer viable.

"I think it's emotional not having any of your own money and being in someone's place when you are told that it's gonna be just for a maximum of a week and then it's 17 days and still waiting," Majewska told Insider.

Majewska said she's frustrated by the UK's visa backlog. "If they got the visa on time, they wouldn't be there, and they'd be safe and comfortable." she said.

Living in a state of "purgatory" has had a negative effect on the family's mental health, Majewska noted. "It's the suspension, waiting for something, but you don't know if it's going to actually happen," she said.

Just 2.8% of Homes for Ukraine applicants have arrived in the UK

According to figures released on Friday by the Home Office, only 1,200 Ukrainians who have applied for the Homes for Ukraine program have arrived in the UK. That represents just 2.8% of the 43,600 people who have applied.

The government's refugees minister, Lord Richard Harrington, has described the plan's rollout as "embarrassing" and "a slow and bureaucratic process."

In a statement to Insider, a government spokesperson said: "In response to Putin's barbaric invasion we have launched one of the fastest and biggest visa schemes in UK history. In just four weeks, over 40,000 visas have been issued so people can rebuild their lives in the UK."

Home Office figures show that of the 79,800 applications filed, 41,000 visas have been granted to Ukrainians fleeing the war. Of that number, 12,000 Ukrainians have arrived in the UK.

Meanwhile, the neighboring Republic of Ireland, which has one-tenth of the population of the UK, has welcomed more than 20,000 people from Ukraine, according to Ireland's taoiseach, Micheál Martin.

Refugee charities have called on the UK government to waive visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees to bring the country in line with other EU nations like Ireland.

Many of the UK's incoming refugees are arriving via the Ukraine Family Scheme, which allows applicants to apply for a visa to join a UK-based family member.

According to Home Office figures, 10,800 of the 36,300 applicants have so far arrived in the UK.

Peter Lee's mother-in-law and sister-in-law are among those who benefited from the program, but he told Insider that the application process caused "anxiety, frustration" and prompted his relatives to temporarily return to Ukraine.

'We felt the only option was for them to go back to Ukraine'

Lee's family were trying to join him in the UK after they fled Uzhhorod, in western Ukraine, by foot.

They got to Hungary, and Lee put them up in a hotel in Budapest. As the visa process dragged on, the family decided it was no longer financially viable to pay for expensive accommodation.

"We felt the only option for us was for them to go back to Ukraine and ultimately wait again," Lee said.

Eventually, the family had their visas approved, and they're now living in the UK.

Sandip Basu, a volunteer legal adviser with the Ukraine Advice Project who helped the Lee family, told Insider that it feels "shameful" that the family had to suffer the bureaucratic nightmare. It shows that the UK's visa-application process is not fit for its purpose, he said.

"It's a problem of lack of communication between the Home Office, the government, and the visa application center, and just a matter of unpreparedness," Basu said.

On Friday, Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, apologized "with frustration" for the program's failures. "I'll be very candid. It has taken time," she said, per BBC News. "Any new scheme takes time. Any new visa system takes time."

But Basu told Insider that the system's greatest flaw is that it fails to consider the agonizing decisions refugees fleeing Ukraine are being forced to make.

"It's a choice between hunger and homelessness, or going back to their home where at least they have shelter, even though there is the danger of bombs being dropped on them," he said. "It's an incredible decision to make, and I don't know what I'd do if I had to make that choice."


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