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Ukrainian refugees falling victim to ‘extremely sophisticated’ UK visa scam, charities warn

Exclusive: Ukrainians are landing at UK airports only to discover that their travel documents and host families are fake

Andy Gregory
Monday 25 December 2023 10:03 GMT
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The charity Settled says it is now dealing with between one and five such cases each week
The charity Settled says it is now dealing with between one and five such cases each week (iStock/Getty)

Ukrainian refugees are arriving at UK airports with fake visas and false promises of a Homes for Ukraine sponsor family after being targeted by “extremely sophisticated” scams, charities have warned.

Charities told The Independent that they are dealing with increasing numbers of cases in which Ukrainians have been tricked into paying hundreds of pounds for letters giving them “permission to travel” to the UK and fake British visas, by criminals taking advantage of their desperation to leave.

The visas are impossible to identify as fraudulent by sight, meaning that Ukrainians are permitted to travel by airline staff, only to be told by Border Force that their documents are not valid, according to the charity Settled, which says it is now dealing with between one and five such cases each week.

The Home Office said it is working continuously to identify and prevent this type of fraud, which it blamed on organised crime groups.

Have you been affected by these scams? Email andy.gregory@independent.co.uk

While some of these fraud victims have landed in a “nightmare limbo” after being classed as illegal migrants and having their passports seized at UK airports, the charity welcomed the fact that Border Force officials now increasingly appear to be granting six-month visas to Ukrainian fraud victims instead.

But the charity is concerned that, despite being granted these discretionary six-month visa stamps, some of the victims are still being left without access to housing and benefits – because councils and Job Centre staff are failing to recognise them as legitimate.

Mariia, whose hometown in eastern Ukraine is occupied by Russian forces, told Settled she was sent a supposed UK visa and information about her British sponsors after paying around £300 for help with arranging to come to the UK.

Mariia arrived at Stansted airport with a fake visa earlier this year (Getty)

“I was sure that [my sponsors] were waiting for me in England,” she said. “But when I arrived at Stansted airport, I discovered that my letter from the Home Office was a fake. The officer stamped my passport with a temporary visa, and told me to go to the local authority where it said my ‘sponsor’ lived. 

“When the council said that such a sponsor was not registered with them, I almost fainted. What to do? I had nowhere else to go.”

Mariia was put in a temporary shelter by the Red Cross, which provided her with £30 a week to live on while she struggled for four months to obtain a biometric residence permit. This meant she was unable to work, study, apply for benefits or see a doctor until she eventually received help from Settled.

After first noticing the issue in June, Settled wrote to the Home Office warning that criminals are taking advantage of people’s desperation to leave and their inability to secure a visa by other means.

The government replied in September that it was aware that Ukrainians who were seeking sanctuary under UK schemes were being exploited by organised crime networks, and said that officials across the Home Office, including Border Force, were working to identify and prevent instances such as these.

The Homes for Ukraine scheme was launched in 2022 (PA Wire)

Settled had urged the Home Office to provide clear guidance for Border Force staff to issue temporary visa stamps to defrauded Ukrainians, and is now calling for greater communications and training to ensure that councils and other authorities recognise these stamps as legitimate.

The charity Opora is also frequently encountering Ukrainians targeted in visa scams, its managing director Stan Benes told The Independent. “It’s safe to say that we get two to three messages from people in these positions every week,” he said.

“We try to make it as clear as possible in our communications that the Ukraine scheme visas are free, and that people need to have connected with a legitimate UK-based sponsor to apply. We always advise people to speak to their prospective hosts to get to know them and, ideally, to video call at least once.”

It is also common for the scammers to tell refugees to enter the UK through Dublin, or Ireland more generally, since Ukrainians aren’t always aware that Ireland isn’t part of the UK, Mr Benes said.

Yuliia Ismail, a Ukraine schemes adviser at Settled, agreed that being told to travel via Ireland or by car, rather than taking a direct flight, is among several “red flags” Ukrainians should be aware of, as well as being unaware of their sponsor’s identity prior to departure.

“As a caseworker, I am working with this on a daily basis,” Ms Ismail said.

Warning that increasing numbers of refugees appear to be being targeted, Chris Keppie of Settled suggested that this could be because Ukrainians are struggling to secure Homes for Ukraine sponsors, with fewer UK hosts volunteering.

War continues to rage in Ukraine nearly two years after Vladimir Putin’s invasion (Reuters)

Criminals are also possibly realising this and “getting more organised”, he said, adding that some scam victims have previously lived in areas near the Zaporizhzhia power plant – where international fears of a nuclear disaster intensified this summer – and suggested that this could indicate that people’s “real sudden panic and desperation” was being particularly exploited.

The British Red Cross also told The Independent that it was aware of a small number of cases in which UK hosts have paid for Ukrainian families to travel to the UK with a particular offer of work when they arrive.

But upon their arrival, they discover that the employment conditions are vastly different from what was first agreed. In some cases, children are discouraged from attending school, and the family is made to work in a way that is not compatible with a fair working arrangement, a spokesperson said.

“We have also heard this being the case in situations where the added cost of living (utility bills, food costs) associated with hosting a family is used as the reason to put people to work in an exploitative way.”

Council and Job Centre staff do not always recognise the discretionary visa stamps given out to Ukrainian victims of such scams as legitimate, Settled warns (Getty)

Other charities have previously warned of hosts charging refugees rent and excessive payments towards bills. However, of more than 80 councils contacted by The Independent, just six said they had encountered alleged fraud by people posing as Homes for Ukraine sponsors.

A recent change in the rules, which requires Ukrainians applying for a UK visa to attend an application centre in person, could in the longer term help counter these scams, Mr Keppie said.

But, adding that it is still very early days, he said: “We are certainly still seeing people who are victims of fraud arriving in the UK.

“Of course, this change will only help if people are fully aware of the UK process – sadly not always likely for vulnerable people in a war zone ... and so many previous victims of fraud hadn’t been aware that the legitimate UK application process was free.”

A government spokesperson said: “The UK has offered sanctuary to over 249,000 Ukrainians and family members fleeing Putin’s illegal war. Our priority remains continuing to provide a safe and secure haven for those fleeing the conflict.

“The abuse of vulnerable people by organised criminal networks is reprehensible. We have robust measures in place to prevent abuse of the visa application process, including training for our decision-makers on detecting forgeries and the ability to interview applicants to help question their credibility and intentions.”

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. It has created online leaflets in Ukrainian advising on how to avoid visa scams, and guidance for refugees struggling with UK accommodation.

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