A four-year-old girl remains stranded in a block of flats on the Ukrainian frontline four months after attempts began to bring her to the UK, a delay campaigners have blamed on a series of government “blunders”.
Efforts to rescue Alika Zubets from the city of Kharkiv began on 21 March when her UK sponsor applied for a visa under the Homes for Ukraine scheme and expected her to reach north Staffordshire by mid-April at the latest. Instead, she remains one of the few children left in her Kharkiv neighbourhood, with no schools or nurseries open and the constant threat of shelling from Russian forces nearby.
Campaigners at Vigil for Visas said that the case is the most heartbreaking they have come across since the sponsorship scheme began, with even the intervention of the refugees minister Richard Harrington failing to provide a breakthrough.
At one point it seemed likely that Alika would reach the UK quickly, having left Ukraine with her grandmother Tanya and reaching Krakow, Poland, where they waited for their UK visas.
After three months, however, they had to return to their Kharkiv neighbourhood of Pobedy, nine miles from Russian frontline positions, after Tanya’s 90-day visa for Poland expired, with little tangible progress on Alika’s case.
Alika’s UK sponsor, Maggie Babb from Audley, Staffordshire, said the “debacle” could be blamed on myriad Home Office failings including sending a UK visa to Tanya but not to Alika.
Other failings in the case include technical issues with Home Office contractors on visa application forms, the processing of biometrics belonging to different applications, and constantly changing demands by the UK government, which Babb said caused fresh delays.
Babb, a paediatric anaesthetist at the Royal Stoke university hospital, said that the family had felt a mixture of “dismay, anger, frustration, embarrassment and sadness” at they way they had been treated.
She added that Alika had lost a UK nursery place for April and that the child’s life was now about “basic existence” instead of learning.
One of the complications arose from the fact that Alika was travelling with her grandmother rather than her parents. Alika’s mother is the sole carer for her own disabled mother, while her father works at a Kharkiv hospital. Alika’s mother, Arena, told the Observer: “I really want to provide my daughter with a peaceful life and a happy childhood.”
The Home Office initially said that Ukrainian children could not travel to the UK without their parents. Ukrainian guidance made it clear that such children should travel to safety with parental consent, but the UK government would not accept that, only relenting last month.
On 13 May, Alika’s parents obtained notarised permission of the grandmother as legal guardian and confirmation of their wish for Alika to travel to the UK, but this has made little difference.
“I have no idea how or why the notarised document from Ukraine allotting guardianship to her grandmother has been interpreted by the Home Office as inadequate, or how that could be addressed,” said Babb.
She said that Alika’s forced return from Poland to Kharkiv must have caused significant suffering. “I’m sure that going back to a bombed area – a place she had been told was too dangerous – can only have exaggerated the trauma that she had already experienced. Concern for her safety has also caused significant additional stress to her family,” added Babb.
Kharkiv has been the scene of intense fighting, with hundreds of civilians dead. Last Thursday Russia shelled a densely populated area in the city, Ukraine’s second largest, killing at least three people and injuring at least 23 others with a barrage that struck a mosque, a medical facility and a shopping area.
Days earlier, a new Home Office form requiring the signature of Alika’s parents arrived by email, but they have been unable to sign it because the only local place to print documents is a hospital, which is inundated with victims of the shelling.
Compounding the family’s frustration was a UK government promise that a breakthrough in the case had been reached, only for that to prove untrue.
Earlier this month, the Home Office said that it had finally cleared Alika for travel, but then said that no visa had been issued.
An email, dated 15 July, from Babb to an MP, said: “The Home Office has contacted me today to explain that the visa for Alika was approved in error. This is cruelty beyond belief, gaslighting of significant magnitude.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “We have a responsibility to keep children safe and have put in place strong safeguarding measures to protect them once they arrive in the UK. The sponsor should, wherever possible, be personally known to the parents. However, councils will review cases and can choose to make exceptions where it is in the best interest of the child.”
July 24, 2022 at 11:33AM Mark Townsend Home Affairs Editor