The Australian government is set to grant transitional visas to displaced Ukrainians who arrive after the July 31 humanitarian visa deadline.
The move comes after a previous two-week deadline extension, moving the day from July 14 to July 31. Before Thursday’s announcement, a policy created by the previous government meant that Ukrainians arriving after July only had the option of tourist visas, preventing them from working, accessing health insurance or help with hiring, and in turn, becoming completely dependent on volunteers.
Many in the Ukrainian-Australian community feared the deadline meant they would not be able to reunite with loved ones or start the life they had planned in Australia.
Bela Arutyunova, his wife Oksana and their twins Simona and Alex fled Kyiv in February after being woken up in the middle of the night by rocket attacks. Bela, who is pregnant and has a history of seizures, told VICE that her fear for her children took over.
“It’s a very strong feeling,” she said.
“It’s an animal instinct that drives you forward and out of danger. I remember a photo of an animal covering its child with the clicking of a photographer’s lens and the sound that put fear in his eyes.
Very pregnant, Bela and her family traveled to the Polish border and then to a Russian-speaking district of Berlin, Charlottenburg. They were looking for temporary accommodation before returning home.
“We spent three days in our car, fleeing the ‘grey wolves’, as we explained to the children.
“[Russian authorities] touched my belly, checking if I was really pregnant.
“At that time, I was completely swollen from the long journey full of traffic jams and roadblocks. My only dream was to wash up and go to bed.
Bela says the Ukrainian consulate in Berlin has denied her future child Ukrainian citizenship because Ukraine still does not recognize same-sex marriage.
“We decided to move on,” she said. “Anything to keep the baby of Russian citizenship”.
In March, a former colleague of Bela wrote to tell him to come to Australia. While the family applied for a tourist visa, they faced long delays. As a palliative, they accepted a visa for Canada as a temporary solution. Bela was about eight months pregnant, so her plan was to give birth in Canada and then come to Australia where her colleague could help her family.
With Bela due to give birth at the end of July, it would have been impossible for the family to arrive on Australian soil before July 31, and applicants for humanitarian visas must be physically within Australian borders to be eligible.
“We are happy that our daughter was born in Canada and will avoid my Russian citizenship. But we would also like to arrive at our destination, Australia,” she said.
“We have an incomprehensible status, we are not tourists, not refugees. Ukrainians have received a lot of help in different countries, and this is often a reproach from former migrants: “it was more difficult for us, you have a lot more help than us”.
“But you didn’t run away from rockets and bullets. You haven’t lived in bomb shelters. You sold your property and consciously left for another country. We don’t know where we will end up, or if we will see our relatives and friends alive again. We just want to live and get back to our previous standard of living.
With the announcement of the government’s transition visa, Bela and her family hope to reinvigorate their plan to start a new life in Australia.
Marina, from Kharkiv, is in Australia on a student visa while her partner Oleh is still in Ukraine. Oleh applied for a tourist visa to reunite with Marina in Australia, but there are long delays. Ahead of Thursday’s extension announcement, Marina said fear that Oleh wouldn’t arrive in time was making her depressed.
“We haven’t seen each other in almost six months,” Marina told VICE.
“We miss all our important dates. We miss spending time together.
“I feel depressed because my partner is stuck in Ukraine while he has the option of being safe with me in Australia.
“I can’t study properly because I think about him all the time. You never know which place will be bombed next.
Marina says she wasn’t the only one affected by the visa deadline.
“I volunteer here in Melbourne. I help the displaced Ukrainians and I know that many families are separated at the moment.
“It’s a difficult and stressful journey. Nevertheless, Ukrainians are ready to go to Australia. We really need it. We really need to move from war to security. And we ask the Australian government to hear our request.
After hearing about the government’s extension, Marina said she was relieved.
“The news of the visa extension is a relief.
“With the situation in Ukraine getting worse every day, it means more of our families and friends can find safety,” she said.
Ukrainian-Australian Dasha Brailko said the deadline meant she would not have been reunited with her father, who was waiting for the right opportunity to leave Ukraine for Australia.
“I am an Australian citizen born in Ukraine and I was devastated by the Australian government’s recent decision to cut access to humanitarian visas for those fleeing Ukraine,” Dasha said.
“My father was directly affected. He lives in Berdyansk (Zaporizhzhya region) in the south-east of Ukraine (90 km from Mariupol) and since the fourth day of the war it has been occupied by the Russian army.
“There has been little fighting in Berdyansk so far, so he decided to stay where he was because it is dangerous and scary to cross the front line back into Ukrainian-held territory. He awaits a safe opportunity to travel west where we plan to arrange flights for him to join us in Sydney.
“Without a humanitarian visa, he can only stay three months without any medical or financial support…this also means he will have to leave for the Ukrainian winter where he has no gas or heating, with temperatures regularly reaching – 15”. degree Celsius.
Dasha said that although she is still worried about her father, she is happy to see the change in the Australian government’s stance towards displaced Ukrainians.
A spokesperson for the Home Office told VICE that Australia is committed to showing “global leadership” in welcoming refugees.
“Participants in Australia’s resettlement program come from a range of nationalities, ethnic and religious groups. The program operates flexibly to respond to changing humanitarian situations in the context of record levels of global displacement.
Kateryna Argyrou, co-chair of the Australian Federation of Ukrainian Organizations (AFUO), told VICE that more than 8,500 Ukrainian nationals had obtained temporary visas, but only 4,300 of them had arrived in Australia,
“We already have many women and children here in Australia waiting to be reunited with their husbands and fathers, some of whom are on the front line defending Ukraine or are being held in the occupied territories.
“It’s important not to forget them.”