Hundreds of civil servants have been drafted into the Home Office across government to help clear a backlog of visa applications from Ukrainian refugees after criticism from British sponsors that people’s lives were being put at risk by the delays.
The Interior Ministry insisted it was stepping up its efforts to tackle visa waits for Ukrainian refugees, although some sponsors reported they had been waiting for a response for more than three weeks.
A senior government source said CSW sister title PolicyHome that hundreds of civil servants had now been drafted into other departments in Whitehall, including the Treasury, in a bid to settle the tens of thousands of outstanding cases.
The department has been overwhelmed after hundreds of thousands of people applied for visas via two routes, which allow Ukrainians to travel to the UK if they have immediate family here or have been matched with a sponsor.
It is understood the decision to second staff from other departments came after officials resisted attempts to create a cross-departmental ‘crisis room’ which ministers say would allow departments to work together on cases complex and to lay the groundwork for the settlement of refugees in local communities.
According to government sources, the scale of the redeployment of civil servants from across the country has meant that some of those brought in to help have been put up in hotels near a Home Office center in Sheffield, which has was responsible for processing applications for the programs.
The move comes after sponsors complained the system was too bureaucratic and did not properly reflect the situation of refugees who were forced to flee without papers and are now stuck in hostels and temporary accommodation across Europe. Others raised concerns about the difficulty of getting updates on their cases and said fears that apps had been lost in the system prompted them to contact the Home Office directly. or through their local MP.
But MPs raising cases on behalf of constituents were told this week that due to the volume of inquiries they would no longer be receiving updates and told to ‘not sue’ the department for further information. .
MPs’ staff seeking updates via a dedicated Home Office hotline said they were repeatedly put on hold for up to three hours to get in touch with officials.
A social worker said the situation was ‘unprecedented’ and demonstrated the Home Office operation was ‘not fit for purpose’.
“The whole system cracks under the pressure. It is unprecedented that we have to wait hours to contact the Home Office, and when we do there is often an unsatisfactory response,” they said.
Another said his team made several attempts to contact the department but often had to wait more than two hours to get through. They added that while they “occasionally” received a helpful response, many of the responses were “short and quick”.
“One of our team members was told something like ‘if you want to waste your time on the phone waiting to talk to us, that’s fine’ when asked about being late,” they said. they stated.
But Home Office sources suggested a decision had been intentionally taken in recent days to reduce the number of staff working to provide updates to allow them to focus on processing visas in the 48-hour deadline set by ministers at the beginning of the month.
However, the decision has created a fresh wave of anger among sponsors who have yet to receive answers, with many suggesting the delays had already put lives at risk.
A British sponsor said the ‘inexcusable’ three-week delay had made him fearful for the Ukrainian refugees he had agreed to take in as they had been stuck in the country awaiting visa approval.
“I wish they had made a break for the border sooner and tried to find safety somewhere else in Europe. I wake up in cold sweats most nights thinking of them and hoping they don’t. ‘were not hurt,’ they said.
“They stayed in their town because they thought that in a few days they would have a visa and could go to Britain. Three weeks later, they are still stuck. They spend most nights in an air-raid shelter because Russian troops are very close. It’s so dangerous that they could die trying to reach the border if they even get a visa now.
They added: ‘If anything happens to them I don’t know how I’ll be able to live with myself and the Home Office can’t even bother to answer the phone to tell us what’s going on.
A government spokesperson said: “In response to Putin’s barbaric invasion, we have launched one of the fastest and largest visa programs in UK history. In just five weeks, over 56,000 visas have been issued so people can rebuild their lives in the UK through the Ukraine Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine.
“Our programs in Ukraine have reached a turning point, thanks to the changes we made to streamline the visa system, including simplifying forms and strengthening staff. About 3,500 applications have been processed per day in recent days, allowing thousands more Ukrainians to travel through our uncapped routes.
John Johnston is a reporter for CSW’s sister title PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared