Home Office doubles time lone child refugees must wait to join family in UK as resources diverted to Ukraine

Exclusive: In one case, a 14-year-old Afghan boy alone in a refugee camp in Europe must wait up to four months to join his brother in the UK

<p>A boy poses in a migrant and refugee camp in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk, northern France</p>

A boy poses in a migrant and refugee camp in Grande-Synthe near Dunkirk, northern France

The Home Office has doubled the time lone child refugees must wait to join family members in the UK as resources are diverted to processing Ukraine visas, The Independent can reveal.

Charities warn that children may be pushed to attempt dangerous journeys to reach British shores after it emerged that the department has increased its service standard for family visas – which include family reunion applications for minors - from 12 weeks to 24 weeks.

In one case, a 14-year-old Afghan boy who has been living in a refugee camp in eastern Europe after fleeing his country last summer has been told he may need to wait another four months - after already waiting two - for a decision on his application to join his brother in Britain.

An email sent from the UK’s visa service to lawyers representing the boy, seen by The Independent, states it is “prioritising Ukraine visa scheme applications”, meaning customers applying for other routes will “experience some delays in the processing of their application”.

“We have therefore made the decision to temporarily amend our marriage and family service standard to 24 weeks, from our usual service standard for this route of 12 weeks,’ it says.

The change, which occured on 11 May, affects all family visa applicants applying from outside the UK, which amounts to hundreds of thousands of people. The Home Office did not confirm how many of these were unaccompanied minors.

Campaigners say the move has left many families “devastated” and thrown into increasingly vulnerable circumstances as they cannot live alongside their loved ones.

Lawyers said the increased delays were “not inevitable” and the Home Office could have avoided them by removing “unneccessary red tape” for Ukrainian refugees.

The UK is administering two routes for those fleeing Vladimir Putin’s invasion - the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine - both of which have themselves been beset with delays since opening in March.

The Independentrevealed last month that the government had pulled staff out of other immigration functions and closed some entirely in order to divert resources to deal with the two schemes.

Beth Gardiner-Smith, chief executive at Safe Passage International, which helps unaccompanied children to apply to reunite with relatives in the UK, said it was “beyond frustrating” that children in “precarious” situations in Europe were having to wait double the usual amount of time.

“We fear this delay in family reunion applications could cause some children we’re working with to lose faith in the process and attempt to make dangerous journeys instead to reach their family,” she added.

Boris Johnson challenged over Ukraine visas

“Visas for Ukrainians fleeing the conflict should be processed as quickly as possible, but this should not come at the cost of refugees fleeing dangers and war in other places. The government must urgently invest in speeding up decision making and increasing capacity to ensure all those at risk are not left in danger.”

Zoe Bantleman, legal director at the Immigration Law Practitioners’ Association, said people with family settled in the UK should not have to wait so long.

“These delays were not inevitable. Had the home secretary heeded calls to waive visa requirements and remove unnecessary red tape for Ukrainians, such delays could have been avoided.”

Caroline Coombs, of Reunite Families UK, which supports people applying for UK family visas, said she had received a flurry of emails from applicants who were stressed and anxious about their visas and wait times.

“We appreciate the Home Office has been up against it processing much needed visas for Ukrainian nationals, but the extension to 120 days for the service standard has devastated many families we work with who have already waited too long to be reunited with their loved ones,” she said.

“It is a horrendous fallout from the home secretary’s decision to apply visa requirements to those fleeing war. Instead of making families wait even longer, the Home Office should be increasing staff numbers to deal with the backlogs.”

There were already lengthy delays in the visa processing system before the Ukraine war hit, prompting lawyers to accuse the Home Office of attempting to “explain away” the waiting times by their response to the war.

Luke Piper, immigration lawyer and head of policy at the3million, which represents EU citizens in the UK, said: “There are increasing delays with decisions across the Home Office but this predates the Home Office’s Ukraine response. We hear from so many people separated from their loved ones for months on end. Something more fundamental has happened inside the Home Office.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: "We are prioritising Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine applications in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by Putin’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine, so applications for study, work and family visas have taken longer to process.

“UK visas and immigration (UKVI) are working to reduce the current processing times as quickly as possible.”

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