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Ukrainian woman told to pay for mother to come to UK despite free visas pledge

Lana Bilko's 72-year-old mum fled her home near Kyiv after the invasion - and now the Home Office are telling her to pay to enter the country.

Lana Bilko and her mother Luba. Image: Supplied

A Ukrainian woman is still being told to pay for her elderly mother to enter the UK after fleeing Kyiv, despite the Home Office announcing more free visa routes would be opened.

Officials told Lana Bilko on Wednesday morning to apply for her 72-year-old mother Luba to obtain a visitor visa – costing £600 and coming with a delay of six weeks to be processed.

Ukrainians living in the UK have told The Big Issue of frustration and delay in trying to bring their families over, describing a process of bureaucratic “ping pong” while their relatives wait in third countries.

Priti Patel, the home secretary, told MPs on Monday not to help individual constituents, but to direct those seeking help to the Home Office helpline, and on Tuesday announced an “expansive” scheme for British nationals to bring their families from Ukraine without charge.

Bilko told The Big Issue: “It isn’t a matter of cost. It’s inhumane to charge people who are fleeing the war.”

Hours after Russia announced its invasion of Poland, Bilko’s mother Luba fled her home kilometres from a military base near Kyiv, fearing it would become a target.

Carrying just a small bag, it took her two days to get to Poland, and she is now in a hostel in Dusseldorf, Germany.

Luba Bilko. Image: Supplied

In Uxbridge, Bilko and her husband have been calling the Home Office 10 times a day, trying to find a way to bring her mother over. “I can’t go to work. I’m very worried,” Bilko, a British citizen since 2008, said.

Previous suggestions included bringing Luba over illegally, and then having her apply for asylum.

In phone calls this morning, Bilko said, officials were still telling her that her mother would need a general visitor visa to come to the UK.

Bilko was told the visas cost over £600, only ensure a stay of six months and currently take six weeks to process.

“My mum is very traumatised. She doesn’t know the language. She’s staying in a hostel and there are drunk people,” Bilko said.

“It’s two days since she announced – even now Priti Patel is tweeting – but there’s nothing in place.”

Patel announced in parliament on Tuesday that the government would be launching a Ukrainian Family Scheme, allowing British nationals to bring a “wider group of family members” to the UK without charge.

The scheme will allow family members to stay for an initial 12 months, and no limit has been placed on the amount of people who can come over through it.

Patel ruled out visa waivers, saying the threat of Russian troops infiltrating Ukrainian forces meant security and biometric checks were still necessary.

Andrew Polyakov’s family fled Odessa on Friday. His parents, 71 and 72, along with his wife’s 65-year-old mother, his sister and nephews – six and 14 – are now staying with friends in Moldova while they wait for acceptance into the UK.

There have been sleepless nights for Polyakov, as he loses count how many times he has called the Home Office.

“It was like ping pong. There is not a clear instruction of what we need to do,” he said.

On Tuesday evening, after Patel’s announcement, a breakthrough came when officials took Polyakov’s own details and those of his relatives, and said a form was being submitted.

Polyakov does not know which form this is, but now expects to receive a decision by Friday.

He contrasted this to Patel telling parliament on Monday that applications were being completed “within hours”.

“We’re just sitting, waiting, and praying,” he said.

“We don’t know what decision will be made regarding my parents by the Home Office, because they were saying they have to pass a security check.”

Both Polyakov and Bilko specifically brought up Boris Johnson while speaking about their struggles with their families.

After Johnson attended a Ukrainian church on Saturday and said immediate family members would be able to come to the UK, Polyakov phoned his family and said it seemed like they were coming.

The news had not filtered to the people manning the Home Office hotline. “We phoned the Home Office straight away. They didn’t know anything,” he said.

“I gave my family a false hope. You can imagine how we were feeling the following day.”

For Bilko, who lives in Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge, attempts to reach the prime minister – or his staff – through his constituency office have been fruitless.

“I understand he’s busy but he’s got people who deal with this. We’ve been ignored, full stop.”

“I forgave him for parties and for everything, but there’s no excuse for leaving people desperate like this.”

The Big Issue has contacted the Home Office for comment.

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