‘We’re not allowed to bring our baby from Ukraine’: Refugees refused after sudden UK rule change

Exclusive: ‘Shameful’ new Home Office rules could leave hundreds of Ukrainians separated from their children, charity fears

Andy Gregory
Sunday 12 May 2024 17:54 BST
Oleksandra and her daughter Anna in Kyiv prior to Russia’s invasion
Oleksandra and her daughter Anna in Kyiv prior to Russia’s invasion (Supplied)

A Ukrainian refugee couple who fled to the UK have been refused permission for their two-year-old daughter to join them after the government suddenly changed its sponsorship rules, The Independent can reveal.

Oleksandra and Yaroslav were offered shelter from Russia’s war under the Homes for Ukraine scheme in April 2022, leaving newborn Anna with her grandparents in Kyiv until they were settled in the UK with work and their own home.

But after finally overcoming the hurdles of finding accommodation and setting up their own marketing business in the UK, the couple’s submission in April for their daughter, now a toddler, to join them was refused by the Home Office, after rules for the schemes allowing Ukrainians to do so were tightened overnight in February.

“Now it seems like it’s impossible to bring Anna,” Oleksandra told The Independent. “I was almost there – and I wasn’t expecting [the legislation] to change. I’m very sad and frustrated, I don’t know what to do and how to react. If I am not able to bring Anna, we will be forced to leave everything and go somewhere else.

“I spent a lot of time building up the business, finding proper accommodation, and when we came here we didn’t have anything – our business in Ukraine was closed and we didn’t have any money. So it’s not a good situation.”

Despite the Home Office insisting that the new rules do not prevent children from joining their parents, charities warn that the changes have created “unintended consequences” and could leave hundreds – if not thousands – of Ukrainians separated from their loved ones.

The “deeply shocking” failure “betrays our commitment to Ukrainians”, warned Labour peer Alf Dubs, who himself arrived in the UK as a six-year-old fleeing the Nazis.

“We pay lip service to how much we want to help Ukraine and the Ukrainians, then in practice we don’t do it,” Lord Dubs told The Independent. “The most fundamental thing is, parents should be allowed to have their children with them – absolutely fundamental – and I think the government should be ashamed of itself.”

The Refugee Council has also urged the government to amend its new policy
The Refugee Council has also urged the government to amend its new policy (iStock/Getty)

Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael said: “I struggle to decide what is most offensive about this case – the cruelty or the incompetence. These are both the defining characteristics of this Conservative Home Office. The fact that they do not seem to understand their own rules tells you all you need to know.”

While previously Ukrainian refugees could sponsor family members, now only British and Irish citizens or those with permanent leave to remain can do so. Announcing the changes on 19 February, the government said it had eschewed the typical implementation period of 21 days to avoid a “misplaced surge of applications”.

Approached about Anna’s case by The Independent, the Home Office said: “We absolutely do not prevent a parent being joined by a child in the UK. The Ukraine scheme rules have never prevented this, nor do the changes prevent this.”

But despite their application for Anna stating that they are her parents, Oleksandra and Yaroslav received a refusal letter 11 days later, on 26 April, that said Anna was not eligible because – as per the new rules – her “sponsor does not meet the requirement that they must be a British or Irish citizen or have no time limit on their stay in the UK”.

“I don’t know how to react – it’s very, very sad and depressing,” said Oleksandra. “I was crying when I saw [the letter] because I expected they would personally look at the situation and let Anna in because we are her parents.”

Naqeeb Sadiq, a senior immigration adviser at the charity Settled, which helped with Anna’s visa application, said he fears that the new legislation – which served to close the Ukraine Family scheme, and tighten the rules relating to both the Homes for Ukraine and Ukraine Extension schemes – may have created “unintended consequences” and be keeping families apart.

“Earlier in the scheme, the government had to make amendments to the policy because of issues relating to minors – that was within six months of the scheme being announced,” said Mr Sadiq. “So it may be the case that they’ve just overlooked it again.”

Warning that hundreds if not thousands of families could potentially be affected, Settled’s Ukraine schemes adviser Yuliia Ismail said: “Generally for Ukrainians, it’s quite typical, sometimes, to leave children in Ukraine or somewhere else with relatives before coming to the UK to get settled, because it’s so difficult for them to get private rented accommodation.”

As more families find their feet in Britain, Ms Ismail warned that Settled is among several organisations now seeing a rising number of cases similar to Anna’s. Oleksandra added: “I’m not alone – I know for sure, I have friends here in a similar situation. Nobody expected this.”

Urging the Home Office to grant young children visas in cases like this, the charity’s chief executive Kate Smart said: “This rule change, introduced with no warning, puts this family in a terrible position. Children in Ukraine’s war zones belong with their parents, safe in the UK.”

A Ukrainian police officer examines fragments of a guided bomb after a Russian air raid in Kharkiv
A Ukrainian police officer examines fragments of a guided bomb after a Russian air raid in Kharkiv (AP)

Agreeing that the new policy has left Ukrainian refugees with no way to bring their children, partners or family members to Britain, the Refugee Council also urged ministers to allow Ukrainians with temporary status in the UK to sponsor their close family members.

“Until they do, Ukrainians who have already suffered so much are being stopped from being with their loved ones and rebuilding their lives,” he said.

Insisting that their rules do not prevent children from joining their parents, a Home Office spokesperson added: “We continue to provide a safe and secure haven for those fleeing the ongoing conflict, whilst providing certainty and assurance for Ukrainians in the UK on their future as the war continues.”

If you are affected by any of these issues, Settled is a charity that gives free accredited advice in Ukrainian, at ukraineadvice@settled.org.uk.

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