REFUGEES bound for Winchester have been left in limbo as the Government’s Homes for Ukraine scheme has once again come under fire.

Hosts across the city and surrounding villages have faced waiting times of up to five weeks for visa applications to be approved, with many of the families they’re supporting left stranded across Europe having already fled Ukraine.

A Russian-speaking fixer, originally from Weeke and who wishes not to be named, has been working at the Polish border since the conflict began.

He’s hosted many families who have rushed to escape the war in flats he’s rented, helping them find hosts in Winchester and filling in Homes for Ukraine applications on their behalf.

To date, he’s currently helped to submit visa applications for 46 people, all of whom have been sponsored by Winchester and Romsey residents. However, only 20 have been approved, and just eight have travelled.

Among those waiting for visa approval is Oksana Melashchuk, 37, who left her house in in Dnipro with her two children, Tikhon, five, and Maria, who’s three months old, at the beginning of March.

Both children received their visas two weeks ago, but Ms Melashchuk is yet to receive hers, despite having applied more than a month ago.

They have been renting a flat in Calais for the past week after being driven from Romania by their sponsor, Judith Hutchinson, 62, from Ampfield, Romsey in hope that Ms Melashchuk’s visa would have been approved by the time they got there.

However, despite officials insisting her application has been given the green light, she’s yet to receive the paperwork, an issue many are facing, and with her tenancy set to expire she says it’s likely she’ll have to travel back to Ukraine as she doesn’t have the money to stay in France.

Last week, several refugees awaiting clarity on their future staged a protest outside the hotline and the visa centre in Rzeszow, Poland, including Yuliya Krasovska and her 12-year-old son David Krasovskiy, who sheltered for two and a half weeks in a basement in Mauripol.

Hampshire Chronicle: Refugees protesting outside the hotline and the visa centre in Rzeszow, Poland

The pair held up signs which read ‘four weeks no correspondence’ and ‘we will notify you of any changes’, in response to their so far stifled efforts to reach their host family in Winchester. In many cases, families are being told to contact their relevant MP rather than call the centre.

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Steve Brine MP, who has been helping force through several applications since the programme was launched, said: “As constituents know well, I spoke out early on at the speed with which Ministers got the scheme up and running but now the focus of my work is helping every potential host, case by case, to get what they need.

“My casework staff and I are working all hours to do, and a great many constituents know what we’ve done. Any constituents from Winchester and Chandler’s Ford experiencing problems should contact me and we can take them to the special visa hub we have constant access to in Parliament.

“I’m also meeting, privately to protect them, a great many of our Ukrainian guests to welcome them to our area and learn from their experience. This is important to me as I am meeting weekly with the new refugee Minister.”

Hampshire Chronicle: Refugees protesting outside the hotline and the visa centre in Rzeszow, Poland

Winchester City Councillor John Tippett-Cooper is part of a WhatsApp group containing around 80 prospective hosts across the city, many of whom say they have faced similar snagging roadblocks while completing the application process.

The inability to track applications is a flaw in the scheme which has been highlighted by both hosts and refugees, who have been forced to spend hours on the phone to try to halt their appeals being delayed.

Alongside Winchester City of Sanctuary and the Ukraine Refugee Support Group he’s also written a letter to both Stagecoach and Hampshire County Council to secure free travel for Ukrainians arriving in rural areas around Winchester.

Cllr Tippett-Cooper has cited the costs of bus travel as a potential stumbling block for refugees attempting to bed in.

In the same letter, he has further lobbied the council to investigate the delay in hosts receiving the £200 welcome payment and then the £350 per month support payments, with some left waiting for the promised government grants for four weeks.

He said: “These delays are totally unacceptable, placing refugees and hosts with unnecessary burdens at what is already a very challenging time. Without any means refugees do not even have the option to travel even if they wanted to, forcing them to rely on hosts and placing them in totally avoidable isolation from others.

“For some families in Winchester they will be able to cope with the increased financial burden, but for others it will add increased strain which they shouldn’t have to face.”

Winchester County Council and Stagecoach have both been contacted for comment, but as the Chronicle went to print had yet to reply.

Message from the editor Kimberley Barber

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