‘Treated like criminals’: Ukrainian mother living in Berwick slams ‘humiliating’ refugee visa system

A Northumberland mother has slammed the ‘humiliating’ refugee system which she says saw her Ukrainian family ‘treated like criminals’ as they fled for their lives.

For Alina Gallacher-Gazhur, mother of two, watching the Russian invasion unfold from her home in Berwick was terrifying as she feared for the lives of loved ones in her Ukrainian hometown. All she wanted was to get her family to safety – but she says the UK visa system has made it difficult.

Alina’s mother Anna, 60, her niece Alexandra, nine, and her stepdaughter Olga, 24, as well as her aunt Valentina, 62, Valentina’s stepdaughter Tatiana, and her daughter Sophia , three, all fled their homes in Ukraine. seek safety with Alina under the government’s Ukrainian family regime.

Read more: Divers dive in the North Sea to raise money for Ukraine

They crossed the Polish border on March 13 and traveled two days later to Warsaw, where a center has been set up to help people apply. While the staff were helpful, Alina said she was shocked at the amount of information the UK government demanded from refugees and the length of the wait they faced.

The visas were finally approved on March 24, and all six flew northeast with Alina on March 25. Although they are now safe, Alina said more needs to be done to bring other Ukrainian nationals safely and quickly to the UK.

LR (front row) Olga Ivannikova, Alina Gallacher – Gazhur, Anna Gajur, Valentina Krupenikova and Tatiana Krupenikova with her daughter Sofia in her arms

She said: “The government says they made it easy to apply for a visa to this country but it’s not easy. My family was lucky because I could stay with them and we could afford a hotel but it’s not easy. there are people sleeping outside while waiting for visas.

“People fled their homes and left everything behind – my mum needs medicine but she couldn’t bring it. All she had was her papers.

“The government needs to make it easier. I just wanted my family to be safe and I don’t understand why you have to wait so long. I think the government doesn’t care about people who have run away from home.

“You have to send all these documents, not just a passport or ID, they ask for things like birth certificates. We were lucky because our family took these documents, but a lot of people don’t. don’t, what if you fled because your house was destroyed?”

Even when they were finally on the plane, the bureaucratic ordeal of the traumatized family was not over. Flying into Glasgow airport, Alina said immigration staff did not appear to have been briefed on what to do with the new forms and the family were waiting at the airport fearing something didn’t go wrong.

“My family started crying because of how long we waited. It was humiliating to sit like criminals and wait an hour for them to figure out what to do with us,” she added. .

A young girl in a pink jacket and a woolly hat wrapped in a blanket
Baby Sophia Krupenikova hides in a basement in Ukraine as bombs explode around her – she is now safe with her family in Berwick

Finally safe in Berwick, the family begins to settle down. But with loved ones fighting on the front lines in Ukraine,

Alina said: “They came here with nothing, they had no clothes, and my neighbors helped us get some for them. It’s very good that people want to help my family, even though my aunt is crying, because she says she wants to come here bringing gifts, not asking for help.

“My family understands that they are safe here, but it is very difficult. My brother, my cousin and my uncle have all remained in the war on the front line, every morning we are waiting for messages from them.

“It’s so difficult for me because I want to go and help people in Ukraine, but I stay here for my children. I love my country and now when my country needs my help, I can’t go. .”

Although she was able to bring her family to the UK, Alina said security should not be reserved for those with British relatives or those who can find sponsors. She called on Britain to follow the example of EU countries which have waived all visa requirements for those fleeing the war-torn country.

She said: “When you go to Poland, what you see is terrible, people are sleeping outside, on the ground in train stations. People asked me if I knew where they could shower, if I could give them water.

“I think people don’t understand what it’s like to lose everything you have, your home, your family, your papers. The government needs to do more to help.”

A government spokesperson said: ‘We are acting as quickly as possible to ensure that those fleeing horrific persecution in Ukraine can find safety in the UK through the Ukrainian Family Program and Homes for Ukraine.

“We have streamlined the process so that valid passport holders do not have to attend in-person appointments before arriving in the UK, simplified our forms and increased the number of social workers, while ensuring that vital security checks are carried out.

“We continue to expedite visa processing across both programs, with over 21,000 issued under the Ukrainian family program”

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