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UK’s website for Ukrainian refugees is not available in Ukrainian

Exclusive: Home Office call centre staff said they have been deluged with applicants reporting technical issues 

Adam Bychawski
24 March 2022, 5.59pm
A Ukrainian woman speaks on the phone from a shelter in Lviv.
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Sipa US / Alamy Stock Photo

Ukrainians fleeing war are being forced to spend hours translating application forms for the UK’s resettlement scheme because the government has not provided a Ukrainian language option.

Britons who have signed up for the Homes for Ukraine programme told openDemocracy that the expectation that people fleeing war would be able to complete the application was “ridiculous”.

One British woman said it took her seven hours to help a Ukrainian family fill out their application, which required them to scan and convert documents while staying in a shelter in Lviv.

“It’s so hard to do the application,” said Claire, who is trying to sponsor a woman and her two children who fled from Odessa to Lviv.

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She said the application would have been impossible for the family to fill out unaided given the language barrier and their limited access to technology. 

“They’re sleeping on the floor in a shelter with just their phones. The other night they could hear explosions outside and the building was shaking,” Claire told openDemocracy.

She added that neither the family nor she had received any confirmation or reference numbers after submitting their linked applications, and had had no communication whatsoever from the government for almost a week.

“The worst thing is the stress of having somebody else's life in your hands and not being able to give them any news or hope because it is just a vacuum of nothingness,” she told openDemocracy.

Tina, who declined to give her full name because she feared it would affect her application, told openDemocracy the family she is sponsoring have also been left agonising for a week after receiving no confirmation when they submitted an application.

A helpline operator told Tina that they had been receiving large numbers of calls about the issue over the past week but were unable to check the status of any application or even provide confirmation that one had been received. Some callers had been left waiting seven days without hearing anything, she added.

Tina says she was told: “We are trying to get the answers, but [the scheme] was all put together very last minute with very little preparation.” She said the call handler’s final words were: “It’s rubbish. All of this is rubbish.”

The worst thing is the stress of having somebody else's life in your hands and not being able to give them any news or hope because it is just a vacuum of nothingness

openDemocracy asked the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DLUHC), which is administering the scheme, about the technical and language issues with its application process. 

The department did not deny the reports and confirmed that the process was being continually reviewed.

Applicants also pointed out that the requirement for both parents to provide documentation as part of their child’s visa application was blind to the reality that most were separated.

“Some fathers are on the frontline and there’s no way to reach them,” said Claire. 

Both women said they had heard from other would-be sponsors that applicants had instead turned to Facebook groups to swap information in the absence of government advice. 

Others have singled out the private company responsible for processing Ukrainians’ documentation for criticism.

TLSContact, which is ultimately owned by French multinational Teleperformance, had previously come under fire for promoting paid services to Ukrainians applying for visas and leaving them queuing for hours in the freezing cold at its application centres in Poland.

DLUHC would not say whether TLSContact had been given additional public money to administer parts of the Homes for Ukraine scheme.

Last year, a report by the Home Office’s own watchdog contained warnings that the company had the “sole focus” of making a profit, and a history of squeezing cash out of applicants.

The government has refused to release any data on how many Ukrainians have applied to its Homes for Ukraine scheme. More than 150,000 people have so far registered their interest in hosting refugees.

The sponsorship route is in addition to a scheme for Ukrainians with relatives already in the UK, with 18,600 visas granted under the family scheme so far. By comparison, Germany had taken in 240,000 Ukrainian refugees as of Wednesday, more than 12 times the UK figure.

A British government spokesperson said: “We are moving as quickly as possible to ensure that those fleeing horrific persecution in Ukraine can find safety in the UK, and our Homes for Ukraine scheme now allows those without family connections to come here.

“The Home Office has acted to streamline the visa application process so valid passport holders no longer have to attend in-person appointments before arriving, allowing us to welcome people faster.”

Ukrainian journalists share their stories of war

Hear Igor Burdyga and Kateryna Semchuk explain what it's like working in a homeland under threat. Plus British author Oliver Bullough and chair Daniel Trilling.

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