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'My mum can’t take it much longer’: Ukrainians turned away as UK visa centres fail to cope with demand

"There’s no system. It’s just a crowd that tries to manage themselves,” one woman trying to bring her elderly mother to the UK said.

Rally against war in Ukraine with flags and sign reading "Stop Putin your hands where they don't belong"

Protests against the war have taken place across the globe. Image: Victoria Pickering/Flickr

From the chaos of an office block in the Polish city of Rzeszow, converted to grant UK visas to refugees fleeing Ukraine, Marianne Kay spoke of concern for her elderly mother.

“There is no order or queue. There’s no system. It’s just a crowd that tries to manage themselves,” she told The Big Issue. “My mum being 79, she can’t take it for much longer.”

Marianne and her mother woke up at 3.30am on Tuesday, after being turned away on Monday. There were simply not enough staff to handle the number of applications, she said. Those waiting in the pop-up Visa Application Centre (VAC) had taken it upon themselves to create a list, in an attempt to impose order. Marianne’s number on that list was 140.

As her mother crossed into Poland in the early hours of Saturday, Marianne flew from her home in Yorkshire to Krakow.

And as she spoke from the hubbub of the Rzeszow VAC on Tuesday morning, she was interrupted by an announcement: the list was now irrelevant. Those without online appointments should go home.

She was left with no choice – the soonest appointment she could book was for next Monday, March 14 – over a week after her mum crossed into Poland.

Nearly two weeks after the invasion began, and a week since home secretary Priti Patel announced a new Ukraine Family Scheme to bring relatives to the UK, those trying to reunite with their families say the process is dogged by delays.

The centre in Rzeszow was set up in response to the invasion, and could provide over 3,000 appointments per week, Patel said.

As of Monday evening, just 300 visas had been granted through the scheme, out of a total of 17,700 applications.

By Tuesday lunchtime, immigration minister Kevin Foster told MPs that figure had risen to over 500 and on Wednesday transport secretary Grant Shapps updated the figure to 760, from 22,000 applications.

Amid widespread reports of refugees being turned away from Calais and told to travel back to Paris to fill in paperwork, a new centre will be opening in Lille – 70 miles away from the port city.

But across Europe – in Poland, Germany, Moldova, and elsewhere – government VACs faced a struggle to keep up with the volume of applications, leaving those fleeing war with long waits to get to safety.

The EU is offering Ukrainians a three-year, visa-free residency. Ukrainians entering the UK must still apply for visas, however, with Patel announcing the Ukraine family scheme as a new free route for those with family in the UK.

Those applying for the scheme must go to one of a handful of VACs in Europe, and complete security and biometric checks along with their application forms. After filling out those forms, they must then stay where they are until they are contacted with an outcome.

Arguing against waiving visas entirely, Patel said the checks were “vital to keep British citizens safe and to ensure that we are helping those in genuine need, particularly as Russian troops are now infiltrating Ukraine and merging into Ukrainian forces.”

Those checks, however, are a source of delay and frustration for those fleeing the conflict.

Lana Bilko flew to Dusseldorf to support her 73-year-old mother, who left her home near Kyiv as the invasion began.

Lana Bilko and her mother Luba. Image: supplied

After days of uncertainty, which included being told to apply for a £600 tourist visa days after Patel had announced a free route for family members, Bilko was able to submit the paperwork for her mum’s application on Monday.

But she was reeling from the impact of the delays she had already experienced – and faced another five days to hear about a decision.

“I was ready to come back home today but it’s not possible. I have to stay here now and it’s absolutely crazy. I can’t leave my mum here any longer,” Bilko said.

She also spoke of concern for her mum: “She’s crying. She’s asking when she can relax, when she can have peace.

“This is absolutely inhumane.”

Defence secretary Ben Wallace said on Tuesday: “We need to upscale it, I know that the home secretary has already doubled, or trebled in some cases, more people in different processing centres. We can do more, we will do more.”

The Home Office has been contacted for comment.

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