When Iryna Simanko tried to help her daughter and granddaughter escape war-torn Kyiv and come to her west London home, she thought it would be a simple process.
Instead the 62-year-old is stuck at a youth hostel in the French port of Calais with other Ukrainian families after days spent navigating the slow and bureaucratic process to bring them to the UK, waiting to see if their visa application is approved.
“I thought it would be faster and easier,” she said. Instead, it was “very difficult”.
More than 2.3mn people have fled Ukraine since February 24, according to the UN, and Britain is the only nation in Europe to maintain visa restrictions on Ukrainians trying to escape violence. So far 22,000 have applied and just 950 visas have been granted under a complicated process open only to those with extended family members resident in the UK.
Widespread criticism of the UK’s restrictions prompted Priti Patel, the home secretary, to announce a partial relaxation on Thursday. From Tuesday next week Ukrainians will be able to apply for visas online and have their fingerprints and pictures taken after their arrival in the UK.
The simplification is scant comfort for those who have already been turned away from Calais. Hundreds of Ukrainians have gravitated to the port in the hope of joining family members across the channel but the UK’s sole official presence this week was a table in a terminal building staffed by Home Office officials able to dispense only advice rather than visas.
Natacha Bouchart, mayor of Calais, on Wednesday told reporters that the UK border force had so far turned away 350 Ukrainians arriving at the port without visas.
Outside the youth hostel, the Bolotina family were preparing to drive to the British consulate in Paris to have their fingerprints and pictures taken. They had arrived in Calais after an arduous six-day journey across Europe from their home in Bucha, north-west of Kyiv, only to find that they could not apply for a visa to join their mother in Worcester.
Seventeen-year-old Anna Bolotina was helping her parents pack their Ford Focus, which was crammed with their possessions – as well as a dog and three guinea pigs. “We’re scared because we don’t know how we’ll get to the UK or what the future of our family will be,” she said.
For others waiting in Calais there was some relief that their families were safe, despite the frustration of the visa application process. Simanko said it was “very good” that her relatives had pressed on to western Europe after passing through Moldova and Romania on their way out of Ukraine.
Footage broadcast this week has shown long queues outside UK visa offices in towns such as Rzeszow, in Poland, near the border with Ukraine. “It was crazy,” she said.
She and others still embroiled in the process hope that the new rules will make the process easier.
Back in the UK, Evgen Chub, a Ukrainian who has lived in Glasgow for seven years, is trying to bring his sister, two-year-old nephew and mother to join him. After enduring a three-day journey across Ukraine to reach the Polish border, his sister had to queue with her toddler for seven hours at a noisy visa application center in Warsaw on Wednesday – despite having a scheduled visa appointment. “It was really hell,” Chub said.
He welcomed the change in the visa application process. “Now of course if it’s online it will be much easier,” he said.
He added he was making an online visa application for his mother, who had been stuck for days without electricity or water in her flat in the heavily contested city of Bucha and was making her way to the Polish border.
Gurpreet Johal, an immigration solicitor who has been volunteering to help fleeing Ukrainians, said Thursday’s rule changes were “better late than never”.
“It takes away a lot of red tape and lets people get out of Ukraine and into the UK,” he said, but added: “It doesn’t cut to the chase of waiving [all] the requirements. ”
Patel defended the restrictions. “Given the real and varied threats we face, we must consider national security alongside our humanitarian instinct and desire to help as many people as possible in the shortest possible timeframe,” she said.
Many of the Ukrainians in Calais are still facing uncertainty. Omad Taheri, a Ukrainian citizen of Afghan origin, was worried that the UK government may not recognize his family connections in Britain.
Taheri’s sister lives in London, but he was traveling with a number of family members, including a niece, after fleeing from Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, which has come under sustained Russian attack.
“It was very complicated, this situation,” he said. “I ran away from the war – now this is the second one.”
“We don’t know where to go,” he added.
Mohamed Abouelhoul, a Ukrainian citizen of Arab origin who studied at the University of Brighton, was also waiting to see if an application for him, his wife and his 11-year-old daughter to join a cousin in Liverpool would be approved.
He expressed surprise the UK government was being so restrictive. “It’s a problem between governments, so why do people deserve this?” Abouelhoul asked. “People should not have to pay for government problems.”
But despite all the frustration at the visa process and the uncertainty, Anna Bolotina spoke for many stuck in Calais.
“Now we’re here in France, we don’t have Russian airplanes in the sky,” she said. “It’s a little respite.”