Alexandra took three days to walk the 70-kilometre stretch of road from her home in Lviv, in western Ukraine, to the Polish border. Thousands of other strangers, fleeing their war-torn homeland, made the journey through the ice and snow with her.
The 65-year-old appears, on the outside at least, in good spirits. Once she crossed the border, she was helped onto a bus through Germany and Belgium for the major ferry port of Calais, in northern France. There, she had hoped to travel to England and live with a friend while the cities and towns in her homeland continue to pounded and shelled daily by the Russian army.
“I don’t know if I ever go back,” she says. “Maybe yes, maybe no. I pray yes.”
“But I don’t know where I stay next”.
Like hundreds of other Ukrainians who made the same journey, Alexandra was told by British officials when she arrived at Calais – a 2500-kilometre journey from her war-torn homeland – that without proper paperwork and a family member in the UK, she could not make the short trip across the English Channel.
She stayed in a crowded hostel for one night, and with about 50 others, she was bussed about an hour to Lille, near the border with Belgium, and placed in emergency accommodation.
Without a passport, she has two choices. She can make her way to Brussels and undertake ID checks and visa applications or she can go to Paris. Either way, at this stage, she won’t make it to Britain.
Europe is facing a refugee crisis on a scale unprecedented since World War II. More than 4.5 million people have been displaced by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with 2.5 million refugees fleeing the country.
The United Nations has warned that its planning figure of four million might be revised up, while officials have predicted an influx of five million people. Countries bordering Ukraine, especially Poland, are struggling to house them.
In places such as Calais, the backlog from previous humanitarian disasters haven’t cleared. More than 2000 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Libya and others are in pop-up camps.
It has turned the region into a political tinderbox and driven a surge in anti-immigrant sentiment. Charity groups such as Care4Calais are preparing themselves for anger towards the Ukrainians because of the generosity being afforded to them that is not afforded to those who have been sleeping rough or in make-shift camps for anywhere up to 12 months.
Despite Prime Minister Boris Johnson promising to be “very generous” towards Ukrainian refugees, Britain has so far taken just a touch over 1300. Its government is under immense pressure from a sympathetic public and media and even within its own ranks to dramatically scale up its efforts.
Alexandra has left behind her daughter and young adult granddaughter and grandson.
“My daughter’s husband stay behind to fight,” she says. “My granddaughter is 25 and her boyfriend is fighting. My grandson – he is 20 – and he has to fight.”
“I just have this bag,” she says, pointing to the back seat of a car she’s about to depart in for Paris. “I hope for UK but they don’t seem to want us.”
She tells stories about the generosity of people she’d met along the way, making light of the past few days when no-one could give any of them a straight answer.
She’s one of about 50 Ukrainians in The Lemon Hotel in the city of Tourcoing, about 20 minutes’ drive from Lille in the car park of a supermarket. Rooms are about $50 per night and it has cramped communal showers and toilet facilities.
On Friday, in front of the hotel usually reserved for crisis accommodation, young mothers and Red Cross staff play with the children, who appear blissfully unaware of the circumstances which have brought them there. Every so often, locals drop in a bag of donated clothes, boots, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and hygiene products.
The impending crisis is not yet on full show across the region, which is traditionally sympathetic to the plight of displaced people. While buildings in nearby Lille at night are lit up in yellow and blue in solidarity with Ukraine, only a few thousands of people fleeing Putin’s war have made it this far.
But the sheer confusion as to what happens next has led many to absolute despair.
In just three days, the British government has announced three different policies and locations – first in Calais, then Lille and now a new pop-up centre at Arras, about another 40 minutes’ drive away. But applicants need a referral and an appointment booked.
They were promised free passage on trains that did not exist. They were later bussed to destinations where local volunteers had no idea where to direct them. Some are expecting to wait at their hotels for five days for any visa applications they have already submitted online to be processed.
The dire situation even led French President Emmanuel Macron to take a swipe at UK counterpart Boris Johnson. Macron, who faces an election within weeks, said the British approach had exacerbated the plight of those fleeing the invasion.
He said the British government’s continued administrative burden meant they were not welcoming Ukrainian refugees who wanted to reach British soil.
“I would hope that the Ukrainian men and women who have lived through horror and crossed Europe to reach their families on UK territory will be better treated,” Macron said.
At the Lemon Hotel, 22-year-old Roxy is a hit with the British press because her English is top-notch. She has a compelling story, too, having fled Kyiv with her disabled brother, mother, husband and their cat.
Roxy was studying to be an interpreter and wants to return to her home in Kyiv if she can.
“[But] … I think it will be impossible for the next few years because the country has to build everything again,” she says.
A British TV crew is attempting to connect them with a British family prepared to take them in if the government opens the doors to more migrants in coming days.
After a week stuck in limbo in France, she has grown exhausted at the red tape and confused messages of the UK government.
“It’s unfair that you act like that to people, because they already went through something very, very scary, and they don’t want to have any problems. And now you’re making a huge problem of nothing.“
In response to the growing criticism, Ukrainian refugees are being told that from Tuesday, they will be able to apply online for a visa and will no longer have to go to a processing centre to give their biometrics.
In an effort to avoid a current policy disaster which has more than 12,000 Afghans living in UK hotels, British families will be asked to volunteer to open their homes and to accommodate women, children and families who have fled.
Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, sponsors who provide accommodation rent-free for a minimum of six months will receive £350 per month, however many refugees they take. Sponsored refugees will be granted three years leave to remain in the UK and allowed to work and access public services.
Virginia Billon, a regional director with the Red Cross, has been running the humanitarian effort at the hotel for mainly women and children, who are unsure what to do and where to go.
Speaking through an interpreter, she says that despite their obvious anguish, the Ukrainians are in good spirits.
“Once the toys came out, the children were just children again,” she says.
“The community has been very welcoming and understanding of their situation. Many don’t know how long they will be here or where they will go next. Hopefully their visas can be sorted, but there has been a lot of confusion and mixed messages for them.”
In the car park of the Lemon Hotel sits a man in a blue station wagon madly tapping away on his mobile.
He introduces himself as Sir Roger Gale, a Conservative MP who had driven from his constituency in Kent in southeast England, where desperate migrants have increasingly made the journey across the English Channel is recent years seeking haven. Many have not made the crossing alive.
As hundreds of thousands more women and children flee across Ukraine’s borders in the face of Russian aggression daily, concerns grow over how to protect the most vulnerable from being targeted by human traffickers or becoming victims of other forms of exploitation.
The day before we met Sir Roger, a nearly 40-year veteran of British parliament, he had made headlines by admonishing his government in the House of Commons and calling for Home Secretary Priti Patel to resign over her handling of the issue.
“What we are doing at the moment is woefully inadequate,” he says. “So I’ve come here to see what’s going on myself and I think I am more confused than when I arrived.”
He said the world would judge Britain’s lack of generosity toward those fleeing their homeland and the nation had a responsibility to relieve the pressure on bordering nations, such as Poland, that had already taken in more than 1.5 million people.
“We have to offer a safe haven for refugees from Soviet oppression as we have done in the past,” he says.
“We must do this with the minimum of bureaucracy and the maximum of compassion. It’s simply time to roll out the welcome mat.”
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