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UK visa center in Brussels ‘overwhelmed’ with Ukrainian refugees

After decades of bashing the EU for being overly bureaucratic, British red tape is now flourishing in Brussels.

While EU countries such as Poland have thrown open their borders to hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians and the bloc offered a “historic” residency agreement for those fleeing the war, the U.K. government has come under fire for its sluggish response to the humanitarian crisis.

Around 60 people per day make their way to a drab U.K. visa application center in a run-down area of Brussels, and administrative capacities have been pushed to breaking point.

A hastily written A4 sheet of paper stuck on the wall informs visitors: “The center is overwhelmed by the unprecedented circumstances. We sincerely apologise if we’re unable to assit [sic] all of you quickly.”

On Thursday, when POLITICO visited the center, a Ukrainian family was turned away for falling afoul of the strict red tape governing visa applications.

“Only one of them has done an application form,” one British official said to another who was checking paperwork at the entrance of the building. He explained to a Ukrainian man called Muksin that he’d have to come back another day to get his wife Alina, two children and mother-in-law fingerprinted and processed.

Muksin — in the red top — discusses his family’s application with a staff member. He did not have all the correct paperwork | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Under heavy criticism on Thursday, the U.K. government U-turned in a bid to simplify the process for Ukrainians hoping to get to Britain by allowing them to do biometric fingerprinting once they’re in the U.K. — and permitting people to bypass the 44 visa centers on the Continent by completing their entire application online. But those changes won’t take effect until Tuesday. Already more than 2.5 million people have fled war-torn Ukraine, according to the U.N.

“When I got there they tell me it will be 24 hours to 48 hours. Nobody calls me, nobody sending email. Nobody is helping me. I sleep with my family in my car there,” Muksin said. He comes from Irpin, near Kyiv, and left his clothing shop to try to join family in the U.K. when he started hearing the Russian bombs.

Muksin drove 2,500 kilometers across Europe to Brussels to apply for a British visa. “I hope it’s very fast because it’s difficult here. Money is finished. I hope the British government is looking at all these people,” he said.

Administrative issues

The visa application center occupies a single floor of the South Center Titanium office block, a gray building shared with train companies like Eurostar in Place Marcel Broodthaers near Brussels’ main railway station.

The center’s opening hours listed on Google are not the same as the hours it operates. The British government has outsourced it to TLScontact, a self-described “Teleperformance Company.”

One man who works in the center was smoking a cigarette outdoors. “Yesterday it was madness,” he said. “In my team we are trying to really do the maximum,” he added, but when asked why the center did not open every day to deal with the surge in demand, he implied this was a decision of the British government.

“I’ve worked here for seven years, and I’ve never seen this,” he added. “They [the Ukrainians] have to follow the procedure, that’s the problem. It’s a bit more simplified [for Ukrainians] than for the others, but at the same time they don’t have Wi-Fi, they don’t have this or that, so yes it’s complicated for them.”

Ukrainian refugees who have tried to get to the U.K. via the port of Calais have been redirected to Paris and Brussels.

Wahid — originally from Afghanistan — wants to take his four young children and wife to live with his brother in London | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

For some Ukrainians this isn’t the first conflict they’ve escaped. Wahid, who holds Ukrainian citizenship, got his children out of Afghanistan only to find himself fleeing Odesa on the Black Sea coast, where he’d set up a cosmetics shop. Wahid, his wife and three children under seven had been waiting outside the building in Brussels for seven hours for an appointment because he couldn’t book online. “The crew here are very helpful,” he said.

But in general he was deeply unimpressed by the system. “It should be not that bad, especially in this situation. And the whole European Union are accepting immigrants from Ukraine but U.K. always has been the most difficult country to get in for the refugees,” he said. He wants to join his brother in England.

Andrew, his wife Xenia, and their three small children are hoping to make it to London to stay with his sister. Their marathon car journey from home in Vinnytsia, where he works for a French company, took them from west-central Ukraine to Belgium — via Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Czech Republic, Germany and Luxembourg. After an inconclusive appointment at the visa center he will have to head back to Luxembourg before returning. “We don’t know how long this will be,” he said.

Andrew and Xenia in front of the application center — they want to join his sister in London under the U.K. Family Scheme | Eddy Wax/POLITICO

Vasyl, a laborer from Uzhhorod, who did not speak English fluently, appeared visibly distressed as he left the building. He said he has the right to work in the U.K., but that he has spent 12 days in a hotel struggling to get visas for his children and wife, even though his brother lives in the U.K. “Problem is no good application,” he said.

A U.K. government spokesperson said: “We have expanded our Visa Application Capacity to 13,000 a week, deployed additional staff across the EU, with a 24/7 helpline in place to ensure those who need appointments can get them to come here. This allows us to balance security risks while welcoming those in need.

“A new sponsorship route, which will allow Ukrainians with no family ties to the U.K. to be sponsored to come here is also being brought forward and all the measures we’ve put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners. We will keep our support under constant review.”

Another Ukrainian man was bundling his children into a car after leaving the building. He said he was too tired to talk.

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