Krzysztof Mikucki was so enraged by the treatment of his Ukrainian family by UK Border Force staff in Calais at 1am on Wednesday that he struggled to find words to articulate his fury.
“They treated us worse than the water in the toilet,” the Polish builder said finally, standing by the entrance to the ferry for hours later with his Ukrainian wife, Alona, sister-in-law Juliia, a speech therapist, mother-in -law Olga and their dog Garik, considering what to do next.
Mikucki’s relatives are among about 600 Ukrainians who have been turned away by British border officials in Calais in the last 10 days at the end of a 2,000-mile journey fleeing Russia’s invasion of their country.
Many are staying in a crowded youth hostel in the French port city, trying to secure visa appointments in Paris and Brussels, upset and angry to have been forced to halt their already grievous odyssey while they work out how to reroute to satisfy UK visa requirements.
On Tuesday night all the rooms in the youth hostel were full. One man who had spent seven days driving across Europe with his family from the heavily shelled city of Kharkiv, and who had also been turned back at the UK border control, spent the night sleeping outside the building, squeezed into his car with his wife and six children aged between two and 16.
At about 7am the next day he wound down his window and would only say: “Things are very bad for us.”
Natacha Bouchart, the Calais mayor, visited the youth hostel to voice strong criticism of Britain’s refusal to lift visa requirements for Ukrainians. “The British authorities are not displaying a humanitarian attitude,” she said. “It is not enough to say that they are welcoming Ukrainian refugees, they need to put everything in place to make it technically possible for them to secure visas, or provisionally cancel the need for visa and create a system that would allow them to apply on arrival in the UK.”
Some families staying at the youth hostel were politely puzzled at the UK immigration officials’ failure to be more helpful, others were hopelessly incredulous, but Mikucki was shouting with fury, exhausted after his 4,000-mile round-trip to Ukraine and not quite back.
After picking his relatives up from the Romanian border, Mikucki had hoped to take them by ferry to Dover and then to his home in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, but they were held at British passport control for four and a half hours. Officials finally concluded that the family would need to leave the port and apply for visas.
“The Border Force staff were chatting about their houses, laughing, while we sat on a bench waiting. At 5.30am they just gave us a piece of paper with a phone number on it,” Mikucki said.
His mother-in-law Olga’s house in Mykolaiv, southern Ukraine, was shelled by Russian forces on Friday and she fled with her belongings packed into a suitcase. She seemed still in shock, and surprised to have been turned away at the border. “It feels hurtful at a time when we are so in need of support,” she said.
French police helped the family to find a hotel, where they slept for five hours before returning to the port to seek guidance from a hastily set up Home Office advice center – staffed by seven workers, who are unable to process visas and seemed equipped to do little more than counsel Ukrainians on whether they should drive back to Paris or divert to Brussels.
There were no Ukrainian translators to help the many people who were struggling with the visa application form, which is available only in English.
British officials said they had turned away between 50 and 60 people at the Calais border every day since the conflict erupted because they did not have a visa. A small new visa application center will open on Thursday in Lille but UK officials are still encouraging Ukrainians to head to Paris or Brussels to make applications, and said appointments were available.
Asked to respond to the refugees’ frustration, officials said that since there was a visa scheme in operation, applications had to be processed, but they were trying to speed up the system. The Home Office said it had now issued 850 visas to Ukrainians seeking to join a family in the UK and was processing 22,000 applications.
Officials have said they do not want to set up a visa processing center in Calais, to avoid encouraging more refugees to travel to the city, which has for years been a gathering place for people hoping to seek asylum in the UK.
Refugee charities based in Calais said there were no Ukrainians staying in the informal camps occupied by people from Syria, Afghanistan, Sudan and Iraq. Volunteers have pointed to a double standard in the way Ukrainian refugees are being housed and fed by the French government, compared with the more hostile treatment meted out to those fleeing other conflicts.
On Wednesday afternoon French officials brought two buses to the youth hostel and drove about 40 Ukrainian refugees to hostels in other cities, but they would not reveal where.
After describing his difficulties in detail to the BBC and the Sun, Misha Raminishvili, a British scaffolder from Hornchurch in east London trying to bring his Ukrainian family to safety, received a phone call saying a visa appointment in Belgium would be brought forward by five days .
“I was angry when we were turned away,” he said, helping his son, six, and stepdaughter, 16, into the car to set off on the three-hour drive to Brussels. “Now I’m tired. I understand they weren’t as prepared as they should have been, everything takes time. I feel disappointed to be honest.”
He was still not clear how long it would take to get home because officials said processing the visa could take up to five days.
Mohamed Sheet, an economics student, and Vitalia Sheeta, a shop assistant, were distracted to have been turned away at the UK border after a difficult journey from Kyiv, hoping to join an uncle in Manchester. “We’re trying to work out how to get from here to Paris. It’s so confusing,” she said.
Tatiana Osadchuk, 26, a trainee nurse from Chernivtsi, was traveling with her 16-year-old brother Victor and her mother, Lesia Osadchuk, a gardener, hoping to join family in Reading.
“We spent £130 each on bus tickets in Romania, to London. They told us there would be no problem at the border but about 20 Ukrainian refugees were taken off the bus at the ferry port. I’m strong, so for me it’s OK, but it’s harder for older people. My mother is scared that we won’t get the visa, and then we don’t know what we will do.”
A government spokesperson said it had “taken urgent action to process visas at speed for all those eligible to the Ukraine family scheme, while carrying out vital security checks”.
They said: “We have protected appointments at all of our visa application centers to ensure there is sufficient capacity and deployed extra staff to help people through the process as quickly as possible. In light of the risk from criminals actively operating in the area around Calais, we have set up a new temporary visa application center in Lille.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism