Another Somerset host family let down
The most moving piece of television I have ever seen was, improbably, “That’s Life”. For those who don’t know it was the old early-evening BBC1 magazine show that used to be in the “One show” slot. It was 1988. The host, Ester Rantzen, introduced a man called Nicholas Winton, who in the frenzied period between Kristallnacht and the annexation of Czechoslovakia had, heroically organized the transport of 669 Jewish children from Czechoslovakia to safety to the UK. The world had then largely forgotten his efforts. But nothing that good should ever be forgotten. He was seated at the front of the studio audience, and they applauded his extraordinary humanitarian efforts. Then Rantzen asked is “Is there anyone here who owes their life directly to Nicholas Winton? If so, could you please stand up?”. Fifty stood. He blinked and looked around in confusion as the tears and smiles began to flow.
It is unlikely that a similar scene will play out at 7pm on a weeknight 50 years from now.
The administration of Michael Gove at the department of Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (LUHAC) has just reversed its policy so that unaccompanied under eighteen-year-olds cannot be accepted as refugees into the UK from Ukraine. Doubly cruelly this reversal has meant that many applications that had been provisionally accepted have now been reversed.
This is not some issue for a distant land that does not effect us. This has happened right here in Somerset to Stocklinch resident Deanne Campbell. Deanne is a flautist and instrumental teacher and after a series of video calls was chosen as a sponsor by a brilliant young Ukrainian piano player and songwriter called Anastasiia. That’s right, the child and her family chose the sponsor. Her father had to stay and fight, and her mother and younger sister wanted to be closer to the border, but they all wanted Anastasiia in the UK to complete her education and continue her music. After a series of Zoom chats they were clear, they want their daughter safe with Deanne.
As you will know from other recent horror stories published by The Leveller®, the bureaucracy involved would tax a saint, but Deanne persevered, helped by the fact that Anastasiia already had a full biometric passport, and the required permissions of both parents were available in the desired format, in spite of her father’s return to the front line. On the 29th of March they were told they had “submitted a successful application”. This joyful news was immediately relayed to Antastasiia and her parents. A successful application is not a visa however, and so they waited. Meanwhile Deanne cracked on. Places were found at schools, music tuition was arranged. Funds for new instruments were raised, and in their musical house Deanne and her husband Darren prepared a room for their new guest.
Days turned into weeks. Calls were made and reassurances were received both from the Visa office and via the offices of our local MP.
Then on the 18th of April a bombshell. South Somerset District Council got in touch to say that they had just been notified of a change in the rules. Unaccompanied minors were no longer to be admitted. Not that it was their fault. They weren’t the ones issuing visas, but they had been made aware and were passing it on.
Consternation in Deanne’s house. After checking with the MPs office, who were doubly confused because previously unaccompanied minors had been a priority, the true picture began to emerge. The eligibility criteria had been changed by Michael Gove’s LUHAC department and these changes had been applied retrospectively to existing applications. There had been no announcement of the policy change. This small but extremely vulnerable group of refugees who have left Ukraine on a British promise are now doubly vulnerable.
Why would our government treat these most vulnerable young refugees, particularly those who had received indications that their application was acceptable, in this way? The families, the schools, the doctors, Ukrainian networks, are all here ready to receive. Because of an arbitrary rule change, all their plans, and their compassion, lies in tatters. This is before you think of poor young vulnerable Anastasiia, her dream to continue her music studies in safe, happy Somerset, now evaporating as she stares at the wall of a cheap bedsit in Montenegro.
Imagine if Sir Nicholas Winton was alive today. Those big blinking kind eyes of his waiting patiently for Michael Gove in his office. Waiting to explain to him gently that he might be missing something, he might be missing an opportunity for compassion, not just in Anastasiia’s particular case, but in all similar cases. Waiting to remind him of his story and how such acts can shine so brightly through history. Sadly Sir Nicholas is no longer with us but I wonder if he might still whisper this truth, from his lips, to Gove’s ears.