DEborah Amoda’s heart still races with fear when she hears a loud noise. She can’t shake the memory of bombs falling all around her, the horror of each airstrike sounding, and having to sprint to the nearest bunker in Kharkiv, her home for three years while she was studying medicine.
Six months after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine began, the 19-year-old Nigerian, despite fleeing to safety, faces even more agony. All she wants is to be with her closest family in the UK – but while Ukrainian nationals are welcome in the UK, Deborah is being prevented from doing so. Instead, she lives hundreds of miles away in a strange city, alone.
A few weeks ago, alone in her apartment in Duisburg, Germany, Deborah heard fireworks explode outside during a festival. She mistook the noise for explosions. “The night it happened, I was watching a movie and I started hearing, ‘Boom, boom, boom.’ I had to lay flat on the floor. I called my mother, I cried. I told her I didn’t want to die.”
The British government announced two special programs for Ukrainian refugees when war broke out: one allowing refugees to join family members in Britain and the other allowing them to join British citizens who are willing to take them in. However, they required that the applicant either held a Ukrainian passport himself or was traveling with or joining a Ukrainian national.
These restrictions do not take into account Ukraine’s international population. When the Russian invasion began, there were nearly half a million non-Ukrainian temporary or permanent residents, including more than 76,000 foreign students, mostly from Africa and Southeast Asia. Many had chosen to study in Ukraine because they did not have access to courses such as medicine, dentistry and engineering in their home countries and the Ukrainian tuition fees are cheaper than in many other European countries.
Data from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) shows that 325,000 third-country nationals have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries since the war began. They have become, in effect, Ukraine’s forgotten refugees – despite fleeing the same Russian attacks as Ukrainian nationals, they face obstacles to getting on with their lives again in the UK and across Europe, an investigation by Lighthouse Reports has found.
pleasemynews‘s Refugees Welcome campaign has called on the UK to take the lead in helping those fleeing the war in Ukraine.
Deborah’s parents and three siblings moved to Sheffield from Nigeria a year ago. They have now settled in there: their mother works in a nursing home, their father is a factory worker and their younger siblings go to school. But the government’s exclusion of third-country nationals resident in Ukraine means it cannot join them, despite the difficulties. She describes how she slept on the floor of a Kyiv metro station for two days and waited for hours on platforms in the snow because she had difficulty boarding trains from the country — something she attributes in part to racism.
“I thought applying to the program would work. The only logical thing I want to do is be with my family,” says Deborah. “I want to lead a normal life again. I want to go to school, I want to study. I want goals again. My mum is trying everything and trying to look for all the ways I can join them in the UK but at the moment it seems like there is nothing. I’m trying not to let it get to me, but I feel very alone.”
The Interior Ministry refuses to say how many people are in the same position as Deborah — while the ministry releases data on applications from Ukrainians and their family members to the programs, those who do not meet those criteria are excluded.
Nonetheless, even those related to Ukrainians — indicating they should be eligible — have a far higher rejection rate than Ukrainian nationals, at 14 percent compared to 0.4 percent. A significantly higher proportion of third-country nationals with Ukrainian family members is still waiting for a decision on their application, at 45 percent compared to 7 percent.
When war broke out, Ukraine was home to more than 3,000 asylum seekers and refugees, along with tens of thousands of international students. Many others who moved to Ukraine after fleeing persecution in their own countries were believed to have had work and business visas.
Kamran Mehdipour, 43, had been living in Kyiv on a business visa for six years when he was forced from his homeland for a second time – while this time it was Russian bombs that prompted him to flee, he had been forced to flee in 2016 to flee Iran following threats from authorities over his brother Peyman’s political campaigns, who is now a refugee in the UK.
Three days into the invasion, Kamran stormed out of his rented apartment with nothing but a small backpack and his three beloved dogs – Ice, Snow and Darchin. He had to leave behind the grocery and delicatessen he had set up in the Ukrainian capital.
“We left in a hurry. With two friends, I was taken 25 kilometers from the Polish border and we walked the rest,” he says. “I thought I’d be able to go home soon, but three months after I left, my old neighbor picked something up and sent me a picture of my apartment – it had been destroyed by a bomb.”
His brother Peyman, now a British citizen who owns a shopkeeper in Elgin, northern Scotland, contacted the Home Office hotline for advice on how his brother could get to him in the UK. He says he was told he could apply to the Ukrainian family program.
The brothers immediately arranged a visa appointment at the visa center in Berlin and met in Germany to apply. They then waited three months to be told they had been turned down because Peyman was not Ukrainian.
While Peyman is appealing, Kamran is living in a makeshift refugee camp in Leer, a small town in north-west Germany. He sleeps on a cot, separated from other refugees by thin sheets of plywood. Most of the people there are Ukrainians who arrive and return to a new homeland within a few days, he says. Kamran has been there for more than three months.
“It’s not good. I feel lost. I don’t feel like I belong anywhere,” says the 42-year-old. “When I was in Ukraine, I was treated like a Ukrainian. I was taxed like a Ukrainian. But now I am here and have nothing. I share a bathroom: four toilets, six showers with 150 people.”
Anais Crane, a case worker at the charity Here for Good, which represents the brothers, says her team has been contacted by several third-country nationals who were legally resident in Ukraine and are now unable to rejoin family in the UK. “In some cases, they have already fled persecution or internal conflicts in their countries of origin, only to be forced to flee again – this time from Ukraine,” she said. “They cannot return to their country of origin.”
A UK government spokesman said they would not comment on individual cases, but added that the Ukrainian programs are designed for Ukrainian nationals and that non-Ukrainians displaced by the war can apply to enter the UK “through one of our safe and legal ways”. including work and study visa regimes”.
However, experts point out that these routes are difficult to access. Madeleine Sumption of the Migration Observatory at Oxford University says: “In theory, non-Ukrainians displaced by the war could apply for other visas, but it’s no easy feat. Work and study visas in the UK are expensive. And people would either have to secure a qualifying job offer from an employer that is a licensed sponsor and willing to pay the hefty fees, or get admitted to a university or college where they can afford the tuition fees for international students. There is no humanitarian visa to come to the UK.”