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Home Office helpline for Ukraine refugees manned by advisers who ‘know nothing’ about new scheme

Helpline advisers say they ‘haven’t been briefed’ about refugee scheme so cannot assist, say Ukrainians

May Bulman
Social Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 02 March 2022 12:28 GMT
Missile strikes apartment block in Ukraine

The Home Office helpline for Ukrainian refugees wishing to join loved ones in Britain under the new visa scheme is being manned by advisers who know nothing about the scheme, it has been claimed.

British nationals and Ukrainians in the UK have said they are “angry and disappointed” after discovering on calling the helpline, published in a Home Office press release, that it could offer them no assistance with getting their relatives to Britain.

The Home Office announced on Tuesday that it was expanding the route to include parents, grandparents, adult children and siblings of British nationals and people settled in the UK, and that a new sponsorship scheme was being established to help people fleeing the Russia invasion.

The Independent has set up a petition calling on the UK government to be at the forefront of the international community offering aid and support to those in Ukraine. To sign the petition click here.

In a press release on Tuesday, the department said people in the region who are eligible under this route were encouraged to call a dedicated helpline, and provided a phone number.

However, it has emerged that when people have called this phone number, the advisers at the other end of the line are not aware of the changes to the scheme.

Stanislav Yurtyn, a Ukrainian IT manager living in London, said he was thrilled to hear about the rule changes on Tuesday, as it would enable his wife’s parents, who have fled from Ukraine in recent days, to join his family in the UK.

Stanislav Yurtyn (far right) tried to call the helpline to arrange for his parents-in-law (middle and far left) to come safely to the UK (Stanislav Yurtyn)

But when the 42-year-old tried to call the helpline on Wednesday morning to start the process, he said he was told by the adviser who answered the phone that “they don’t know anything about this new scheme”.

“The advisor said they deal only with British nationals and family visas for immediate members of British nationals, not the new scheme. He advised me to call to UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI),” he said.

“I called UKVI and it took 30 minutes to get through. They said that if I’m not a British national, the scheme is not applied. The advisor said that he saw the press release but that they had had no new updates from their managers.”

Mr Yurtyn, whose parents-in-law are currently relying on support and accommodation from friends in Maldova, added: “I feel angry. I understand it may take time to set this up in the systems, but can’t they speed it up?

“People suffering now. They cannot wait. The UK knew this was likely to happen. They could have thought about immigration policy earlier. I’m disappointed and frustrated.”

Andrii Zharikov, a Ukrainian-born lecturer at the University of Portsmouth who has been in the UK for six years, said he called the helpline on Monday to ask about getting his younger sister, 19, to the UK after she fled Ukraine earlier this week.

Andrii Zharikov (far left), who is trying to get his younger sister (middle) to the UK said he was ‘appalled’ by the ‘disorganisation’ of the Home Office helpline (Andrii Zharikov)

“I was on the phone for over an hour only to learn that they have no guidance about the administration of the scheme which they announced yesterday. I was told to call later,” he said.

“I am appalled by yet another instance of disorganisation. Many refugees may not have the time and money to call and wait for an hour only to be told to call back later.

“It seems like the statement about the new scheme was made just to appeal to general British public, but not to help refugees themselves as the system remains unclear and confusing.”

Peter Baron, a British national living in Chichester, who is hoping to bring his Ukrainian partner to the UK after she fled from the country, said he too was told by the helpline that staff couldn’t help.

Peter Baron (left) called the helpline seeking help to bring over his Ukrainian partner Nina (right) (Peter Baron)

“I have just spent another hour on the phone to the helpline. It’s a broken system - the adviser basically said they haven’t been briefed yet and I should ring back tomorrow,” he said.

“I made the point that refugees very likely don’t have the money in their phone to hang around on a helpline for an hour and would he please pass this feedback up the line.”

Mr Baron, whose partner is currently sleeping on the floor of a friend’s apartment in Istanbul, added: “Nothing has been thought through no one is prepared and meantime our loved ones are camped out somewhere in Europe. I am distressed and ashamed.”

Sophie Spector, an immigration lawyer in London, said that she had phoned the helpline to discover the scheme for extended family members of people in the UK was “not open” and that there was “no means to apply.

“Helpline [staff] are frustrated and upset as we all are as [they are] receiving thousands of calls. Do not call the number,” she said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Relatives of Ukrainian refugees also took to Twitter to express their frustration. One said on Wednesday morning: “Helpline advisers saying they have no guidance for my 73-year-old nan who is trying to escape the Ukraine war, no form to fill in.”

Another appealed to the Home Office Twitter account, asking: “How can Ukrainians apply for a humanitarian visa route? Helpline is saying it’s not open. How they can put an application in?”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “We have been working at pace to launch the Ukraine family scheme and it is already open for immediate family members to apply.

“The scheme will be open to extended family members from Friday. Call handlers are taking contact details in the interim, and callers will be contacted with further information on applying.”

The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.

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