Trevor Geraghty – 7th April 2022
Lessons of history – Save the women and Children first – Fortress Britain’s shame , the impact of the hostile environment policy
My eyewitness account of helping one family to safety into the arms of their family in Scotland.
On March 2nd moved by the realisation of the horrors of war I assembled a truck of private aid , baby food, nappies, drinks, first aid kits, bandages, sleeping bags and energy bars and headed alone for Medyka on the Ukrainian border. As the old saying goes “to go fast go alone, to go far you need a team”.
I had 2 goals: to deliver aid to help those in need and to help tired and traumatised people to a place of safety. I made a stop with friends from German Round Table near Kassel in South Eastern Germany to take on advice and more aid and saw already on the 3rd of March the advanced preparation that German families and charities were making to help our wider European families, knowing that this was going to be a long project but one requiring an immediate reaction. I drove late into the night stopping in Dresden (where Vladimir Putin spent 12 formative years ) for one final night’s sleep near the Polish border, with the words of my German friends to prepare me for what I was about to encounter ringing in my ears “Rest and prepare mentally, you will need to be sharp and focussed, you will encounter trauma and chaos”.
I rested and then drove all day getting to the border at 17:00 with approximately 1 more hour of daylight left. I was directed to Przemyśl some 13 km from the border where I unloaded the truck to grateful recipients knowing that the cargo was specifically going to be taken straight into Ukraine. The scenes were of organised chaos, with thousands of young mothers, babies, small children and elderly people gathered, having completed huge journeys to arrive there. I found myself helping and comforting a young Jewish couple from Kharkiv who has survived 6 days of shelling and a monumental journey to arrive at the border. They were hollowed out by fear – I will never forget the face of that young lady. They had managed to get onward travel to Israel from Krakow the following day and I hugged them knowing that at least that part of their nightmare would end soon.
The car park had private charity minibuses from Denmark, Germany, Spain delivering medical supplies and taking back anyone they could, at that point there were no major agencies present. Media organisations were present in numbers bearing witness to the horrors of war in Europe. Amongst the chaos of throngs of people, I was deliberately wearing a Scotland hat and carrying a sign saying Scotland. I had a phone pushed in my face by a little lady and I noticed that a video call was on the screen, the person on the screen asked very simply the question “will you take care of my grandchildren?”
I explained that home for me is Stronachlachar, Stirlingshire. The lady on the screen, Galyna, is a Ukrainian married for 15 years and living in Clackmannan so by chance we are near neighbours. I gathered her family each with a small backpack from Zaporiza, next to Europe’s largest atomic plant: little Polyna aged 7 , Kyrilo 13 and Sasha 15 (he started to run with his family on his birthday March 2nd ) and Liza 37 and took them to the truck, driving out of there as darkness fell. I called Galyna back to reassure them of the fast forming plan and also called my sister’s Ukrainian neighbour in Ireland (my homeland) to explain to my Ukrainian speaking passengers that they were now on the way to safety.
The roads were packed and the atmosphere charged. At a diesel stop I booked the family hotel rooms in Katowice which is the closest major city to Auschwitz , the historical connection of seeing fleeing Jewish refugees in 2022 and the location wasn’t lost on me. I was making all the contacts I could, relying on many years of friendships in Belgium and Germany to guide me , even at that stage it was obvious that Fortress Britain was pulling up the drawbridge just as our European family was needing assistance. The forms for the Ukraine Family Scheme were being talked about on the 5th of March but the online systems were non existent at this stage, no information, helplines etc were available.
The morning of the 5th of March saw very heavy snow in Katowice as we headed north with my friends in the Belgian city of Diest as the destination, knowing that even at that stage Poland was inundated with evacuees. My new Ukrainian friends had never left their city before so this forced journey was an extreme introduction. I called everyone and every agency I could en route , to be brutally honest I encountered too much handwringing , obfuscation and misinformation. Back in Scotland, Galyna and her husband Robert completed one of the first Ukraine Family scheme visa applications and we rested in Diest with my friends having arranged hotels. On Saturday 6th we were embraced and looked after by some amazing people, who took the family to get clothing, toiletries, and some small toys, money etc to ease their pain. In the 36 hours which had elapsed since I had met the Shyshorina family, I had seen no tears , no overt emotion, however in Belgium the moment a fellow Ukrainian lady and long term Belgian resident said hello to Liza, she collapsed with human emotion.
“When would you run?” I asked my doctor friends in Belgium and it rocked them to their core .
I had been sent the number of a hastily established “British advice line” which was a French number and I spoke to a pleasant young woman. Her words to me were simple “you won’t like what I am about to say but your only hope is to go to Ireland”. I was 2 hours from Calais and Eurotunnel. I even asked about transiting Britain to travel to Ireland via Holyhead all of which was refused. I took the only decision available to me and travelled 10 hours by car to Cherbourg for the ferry to Rosslare in my home county of Wexford Ireland – 18 additional hours for people who had never been on a boat in their lives. Stena Line were brilliantly helpful and supportive although the family suffered from sea sickness which mum Liza described as being like the worst morning sickness.
Our arrival in Ireland was so human, being greeted, hugged and welcomed by the Irish Police and Immigration personnel (none of the group had passports ), immediate welcome paperwork was produced saying you are safe here and we cleared the port in minutes. I made calls and the Irish people sprung into action, this was March 7th Ukrainian flags were everywhere , a local Member of the Irish Parliament Johnny Mythen from Sinn Fein cleared his diary , met with myself and the family providing personal support immediately, including making contact with his colleagues who are elected to Westminster. A local charity Wexford People Helping People arranged without hesitation for the family to get accommodation in the Arklow Bay Hotel and Danielle, her husband and children arrived with 3 bags of brand new toys, clothes and love that night to greet them. Meanwhile Galyna had been travelling from Scotland via Ferry to embrace the family and she arrived in Ireland late on Monday night.
I had tried every visa office number , the British embassy in Dublin to no avail so took the decision once again to get the family up early and doorstep the TLS (outsourced) UK Visa Office, located in an obscure industrial estate in Dublin with no parking, upstairs with no facilities, no lift , poor signage etc . There was a queue out the door already early in the morning and a hostile attitude , only approximately 3 Ukrainian families were in this huge queue so the British Government outsourced facility in the UK’s closest neighbour and largest trading partner in Europe was already massively under resourced. We queued on the stairs, 3 children, grandmother and mum, further traumatising people. The attitude was one of fear and not questioning , we made our way to the front of the queue at 12:30, to be immediately told “you all need to leave we are closing for lunch come back and queue again at 2pm”. We were then told that the scheme called the Ukraine Family scheme actually required individual applications including for the 7 year old. I grabbed my laptop from the car and typed like mad for an hour at a coffee shop to get the applications done (all in English with no allowance for any translations. We had to return to get these “online” applications printed out otherwise we would not be seen. We queued again then went through the process of biometrics Iris scans, fingerprints, photos etc and eventually got out of that hell of an office at 4:30. Both myself and Galyna asked calmly about timescale , “usually about 6 weeks we were told”, “London will decide we were told”. I said that this was unconscionable and a disgrace: the staff agreed.
We chased the Clackmannanshire MP’s office daily for updates whilst friends and family arranged accommodation, meals etc waiting for any form of update. We received no practical support from the Scottish Government, Scottish MPs and certainly none from the UK government. Finally on the morning of the 15th of March after another trip back to the Visa office to collect paperwork to enter the UK the travel arrangements to get into the UK could be arranged.
Subsequent correspondence from the Home Office stated that the visa approval happened within 24 hours but it subsequently took the outsourced TLS 6 further days to send an email instructing the family to return to the visa office. This wait caused extensive additional stress and resulted in an estimated 2000 Euro of additional costs in the exercise.
The difference in approach and attitude in the EU is stark, 24/7 reception centres all services facilities giving people residency, social security numbers, food, accommodation, benefits etc . Whilst the Ukrainian Government are delighted that aid is being provided, the EU agencies view is that Britain is closed and inhuman when it comes to shouldering their part of the refugee challenge.
I sat in the Dublin Airport 24/7 refugee centre helping with the children 3 weeks ago with a young woman of 30 years of age with 3 very young children who had escaped from Irpin near Kiev. She told me then of systematic rape and summary executions all of which we see on the TV today.
Lessons I learned
- Scotland has no visible presence to help people flee
- If Scotland wants to take its place amongst the independent nations of the world it needs to start acting like one
- Simply looking at our collective shoes and blaming Westminster and the Home Office whilst not doing all we can is not good enough
- Scotland has offices and resources in Europe which could be used today to help evacuate people and to get the visa applications done