Government visa process still hampering Ukrainians' arrival

Kim Balshaw with his son Jonathan.

Kim Balshaw, pictured with his son Jonathan, who is helping to link sponsors in Felixstowe with Ukrainians - Credit: KIM BALSHAW

Communities working to bring Ukrainian refugees to Suffolk are still being hampered by the Government’s visa process, with one village still not having welcomed a single refugee since it started its bid.

Residents across the county have offered their homes to people fleeing the Russian invasion under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, but organisations are reporting that bureaucracy is preventing them from bringing refugees to the country. 

The Government says 115 visas have so far been issued for refugees coming to Suffolk - 49 in West Suffolk, 30 in East Suffolk, Babergh 18, Mid Suffolk 10 and Ipswich eight.

in Essex, 240 visas have been issued - including 33 in Colchester, 25 in Braintree, 15 Tendring and 13 Maldon.

Ukrainian refugees load their belongings onto a bus before it departs from the Centre Europeen de Se

Ukrainian refugees load their belongings onto a bus in France. - Credit: PA

John Sweet, 72, is helping to organise the Debenham village response, but said the situation had not changed since he spoke to the EADT at the end of March, when there were 50 homes available, but no refugees had arrived. 

He said: “I always thought this was a compassionate country and one that held its arms open to people in dire straits, but it is not.” 

He added that while the Government appeared to have made progress in issuing visas for the family scheme, which linked Ukrainians with relatives in the UK, the pace of visas through the sponsorship programme was sluggish. 

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By becoming a sponsor, people can provide a home to a Ukrainian they know or record their interest to be later matched with a refugee. 

A woman walks past anti-war graffiti in support of Ukraine, painted on shutters in Dublin city centr

A woman walks past anti-war graffiti in support of Ukraine, painted on shutters in Dublin city centre, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine. - Credit: PA

Mr Sweet added: “It is a sad state of affairs from our point of view towards the Government.” 

In Felixstowe, retired RAF wing commander Kim Balshaw has been using Facebook and a network of churches and missionaries throughout Europe to match Ukrainians with sponsors. 

On Saturday, he said so far, he had matched about 40 refugees to 12 sponsors, which represented an increase on when he last spoke to the EADT at the end of March and had connected 30 Ukrainians with eight sponsors. 

However, he was also scathing of the Government’s response, particularly an unwillingness to share data on sponsors, which would make it easier for him to match people with refugees. 

He said knowing who had come forward to offer accommodation would enable organisations and charities to find appropriate homes and keep families close together as even if they could not find a single home for a whole family, they could still be housed within the locality. 

He added: “There are four million displaced outside of Ukraine, six million inside. Most of those people just want somewhere safe until they can go back. The countries next to Ukraine all help and the UK needs to take its fair share, but the Government has not been doing so.” 

Mr Balshaw, who served with NATO in Afghanistan, said if nationally 200,000 people had offered their homes for refugees, there must be approximately 2,000 in Suffolk. 

However, because sponsors’ data was not available to community groups, linking them to refugees would prove very difficult. 

masha lisa

Masha and Lisa pictured together on the alpaca farm. - Credit: Kerry Wilmot

Among those who have managed to reach Suffolk is ex-professional tennis player Masha Koloniei, 23, and her daughter Lisa, four, who have been given a new home on an alpaca farm in north Sufolk.

Celeste Goschen and her partner Sergei Grachev, who is originally from Russia, decided to take the family in as part of the Homes for Ukraine scheme at their farmhouse in Shipmeadow, near Bungay.

Mr Grachev drove across Europe to collect the pair who are now settling into life on the farm.

A spokesperson for Suffolk County Council said more than 500 refugees were expected to arrive in Suffolk. 

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Masha and Lisa are still healing on the farm from the trauma of the war and Mika Lipman, Sergei's son (second right), recently left Moscow. - Credit: Kerry Wilmot

Councillor Bobby Bennett, cabinet member for equality and communities, said: “We are so grateful to the many people in Suffolk who have opened their homes to Ukrainians by signing up as sponsors via the Homes for Ukraine scheme.   

“We are working at pace with partners to ensure that the arrival of Ukrainians into Suffolk is as smooth as possible. 

“Suffolk has always been a welcoming place and we continue to work with and support all refugees, asylum seekers and migrants in the county.”