The Home Office has been forced to rewrite guidance for Ukrainian refugee call handlers after giving families the wrong information that stopped them flying to the UK.
Officials also admitted that “technical issues” prevented travel forms being sent to refugees to enable them to come to the UK, delaying their escape to refuge with British families under the Homes for Ukraine scheme.
The admissions come after furious Britons bombarded helplines with complaints about applications from the opening of the scheme on March 18 and 19 being delayed and apparently going astray.
The problems emerged after The Telegraph intervened on behalf of Tatiana Bilous, a HR professional, and her two daughters, Zlata, 11, and Mariia, nine, who are being sponsored under the Homes for Ukraine scheme by the Colvin family from Buckinghamshire.
One of the first to apply on March 18, she had been waiting two weeks for approval to travel to Buckinghamshire after fleeing Bucha, the scene of Russia’s civilian massacre.
Even though an email with the necessary “permission to travel” documents within it had been sent, nothing arrived and the Colvins were told by helpline operators that it could not be re-sent – meaning they would have to reapply and go to the back of the queue or lodge a complaint.
Asked for an explanation, a government spokesman said: “A human error meant that a call handler incorrectly informed Tatiana Bilous’s sponsor that permission to travel letters cannot be re-issued. This has been resolved and the call script updated.
“We are aware that a technical issue has impacted some customers receiving their permission to travel letter. This has since been resolved and customers have been sent their permission to travel letters.”
‘Happy household’ – but others not so lucky
After The Telegraph intervened, Ms Bilous received her resent travel letter. She and her daughters flew to the UK on Monday, arriving at midnight before travelling to the two-bedroom cottage in north Buckinghamshire that will be their home for the coming months.
Members of the Colvin family described it as a “happy household” and that they were “so immensely grateful to The Telegraph for unlocking the nightmare we were in”. One family member added: “Tatiana says it is the first time she has seen the children relaxed and just playing since the invasion.”
The changes do not yet appear to have satisfied other families. Andy Wicks, another sponsor, wrote on social media: “UK Visas and Immigration Ukrainian helplines has told me in person that there is a system issue affecting applications made on March 18 and 19 and they are not being picked up by caseworkers.”
Lord Harrington, the refugees minister, pledged to “find out” why so many sponsor families had heard nothing since applying on March 18. He said he was not aware of any “data loss” but acknowledged there may have been a “computer glitch” although it was the first time he had heard of it.
He said the delays they had faced of 18 days were “unacceptable.” “[The system] has not worked. A glitch maybe. Whatever the reason, it has not worked,” he told an LBC phone-in on Tuesday where he took calls from angry sponsor families.
He added: “It’s taken a lot longer than it should because it was a slow and bureaucratic process…the Home Office and Government was not geared up to this volume [of applications].”
Forty-eight hour target
Lord Harrington repeated his target of turning round applications within 48 hours, though this target was not likely to be met before the week after next.
However, another British couple came a step closer to uniting with their Ukrainian refugee family after initially being prevented from registering a visa application for a two-week old baby, because the child had not been resident in Ukraine before December 31 2021 – as required on the form.
The couple are Maryse and Martin Haywood, from Knaresborough, north Yorkshire, who have offered refuge to Anna Kalyta, her mother Tetiana, her new baby Stephania and her three-year-old daughter Melania in their five-bedroom home.
They have been waiting more than two weeks since applying on March 18. Now, although they have three visas, they still face another delay in securing the visa for the baby. Others have faced similar problems over approvals of applications being staggered over family members.
The Home Office intervened after being alerted by The Telegraph and sanctioned the application, although the mother has to first make a 60-mile round trip to a Visa Application Centre in Poland to get the baby her visa.