Questions have been raised as to why no government official is providing assistance to the recently opened counseling center for Ukrainian refugees in Belfast.
The government oversees two visa programs for refugees fleeing the Russian invasion and seeking to enter the UK.
An advice center to help those arriving here under the schemes was opened on Monday, but no one from the Home Office or the UK Department for Levels, Housing and Communities – which is in charge of visa schemes – was not present.
Currently, there are two visa regimes in place for Ukrainians to enter the UK, one for those whose family already lives here and one matching named persons or a family with a sponsor providing accommodation.
On Monday, an information center for Ukrainians opened in Belfast at a municipal facility. It is one of many that will work here and offers advice to refugees on accessing benefits, finding work and other issues.
The Red Cross is helping to run the new counseling centres, with another open in Newry and others in Ballymena and Craigavon opening later this week.
Alliance election candidate and Lord Mayor of Belfast Kate Nicholl said: ‘This was a missed opportunity for a united government. Many people who attend the advice center have multi-faceted issues to deal with, and there was a clear request to speak to the Home Office on a range of issues.
“The situation in Northern Ireland is particularly complicated because of the land border with the Republic. Some people on UK visas will have entered Northern Ireland via Dublin or Rosslare. Others may have traveled to Northern Ireland informally and need to regularize their status. For many people wishing to welcome refugees, bureaucratic delays are extremely frustrating. The Home Office urgently needs to reassess its approach.
On Monday, Ian Snowden, who heads the Ukrainian support team in Northern Ireland, said around 300 refugees had already arrived here to live with family members. He added that 660 Ukrainians are waiting for visas to arrive under the sponsorship visa program.
The executive office said: “We have a wide range of partners who provide advice and support to refugees in each of the assistance centres, including advice on immigration matters. We have been working closely with the Home Office to make arrangements for the provision of their services to the centers as part of the rollout and they will be present in the centers from Wednesday.
The Home Office said: “We are acting as quickly as possible to ensure those fleeing Ukraine can find safety in the UK through the Ukrainian Family Scheme and Homes for Ukraine. We have approved over 40,000 visas through the two Ukrainian programs since they opened, providing much-needed shelter for those fleeing war.”