Covid-19 Community Reporter Paris Ali-Pilling interviews Victoria Girsa, co-founder of Portsmouth based GBS UK Immigration Ltd, a team of accredited immigration advisors. In part one of a two part series, Victoria explains how Covid-19 has impacted upon the mental health of her clients, the impact of visa offices closing during lockdown and the financial impact on the migrants she represents.
Interview transcribed by Peta Sampson.
Paris: How has the pandemic affected the mental health of your clients and has this changed the way you work with them?
Victoria: From the mental health perspective, our clients most certainly are affected by the pandemic. The most obvious one is stress, anxiety and frustration from being separated from their loved ones and not knowing when they will be reunited again.
We have numerous clients who are currently separated from their family – split by the continents and the pandemic.
I have one client who was here in the UK with his family as a visitor. He has been advised that he should leave the UK to apply for entry clearance as a spouse from his country of origin. He left the UK before the lockdown was even contemplated. We managed to submit his online application in April 2020. As part of the visa application process he must submit his biometrics (fingerprints and photograph) at the visa center. All the visa centers closed suddenly, and we were able to book the appointment for him only for 10th August 2020, upon the center resuming its services. We are now looking at another three months waiting time for the settlement category application decision to come through as the visa consideration process starts only upon the application submitting his/her biometrics.
The Applicant and his family in the UK communicate by means of WhatsApp and Skype on a daily basis but it will never substitute in person contact they are deprived of.
The worst thing is that we do not know if there is going to be a second wave and for how much longer they are going to be separated. People are very upset about the entire situation and we are trying to be extra patient with our clients and assure them that we will pass on information as soon as it becomes available to us.
What impact has the closure of Visa Centres had on the families you work with?
Visa centers in the UK and outside of the UK suspended their operation for various periods of time throughout the pandemic. They are gradually resuming their services but there is a backlog of cases with applicants who are waiting ‘in the queue’ to submit their biometrics for the application process to be completed.
For applicants from within the UK, it means delays in receiving the decision on their application. Many clients are facing redundancies in light of the pandemic and are worried that they will not be able to apply for jobs without a renewed visa being in place.
For applicants from outside the UK, it means being stranded overseas. One of my cases is a fiancée visa from Brazil. She just managed to submit her biometrics at the visa center before lockdown. She paid a fee of £573 on top of the Home Office fee of £1,523 for a super priority service – for the decision to be made within 30 working days as opposed to 3 months standard processing time. Her passport has been shipped to Bogota, Colombia and kept in a safe during the pandemic closures. She and indeed no one else had access to the passport, even in case of an emergency. The decision on the application has been made in August 2020 but due to the delays in the process, unfortunately, the couple had to cancel their wedding ceremony and reception in the UK.
I have a pending European Family Permit case from Ukraine, which usually takes about 2 weeks, outstanding for 5 months now. The line of communication between the Home Office, visa centers and applicants is bad to say the least. We have been assured by the Home Office that the decision has been made on our client’s case, but the decision must be delivered by the visa centre, which denies receiving the decision from the Home Office. It is very frustrating for us as representatives and of course for our clients who are just willing to be together in the UK.
The Home Office is changing the way it processes applications in response to COVID-19. For some customers, this involves reusing biometrics which have been recorded in a previous application as part of the process to verify their identity. To allow biometrics to be reused, they have developed a way to submit facial images using a new UKVCAS Identity Verification application (UKVCAS IDV app). It means that eligible applicants will not have to travel to the visa center at all. The new application will be downloadable to a mobile phone, but it is unclear at this stage how exactly it will operate. We envisage some ‘teething problems’ with the app and further delays until it is fully operational.
What financial impact has the pandemic had on your clients, is the financial impact worse for families with no recourse to public funds?
The pandemic has affected our clients financially too. In a few of my cases, the main UK Sponsor has been made redundant due to pandemic. Even though the Home Office is making concessions and will consider employment income for the period immediately before the loss of income due to coronavirus, the guidance refers to ‘temporary loss of income’ and it is not clear whether redundancy with no immediate prospects of employment will qualify. As a result, some clients prefer not to risk it and postpone sponsoring their husbands/wives and children until after they secure new employment and meet the requirement, which in some instances mean they have to be employed for at least further 6 months to be able to sponsor their loved ones.
Clients with no recourse to public funds are affected the most. One of my clients was granted with leave to remain as a parent of British citizen children at the start of the pandemic. His visa is endorsed with ‘No Recourse to Public Funds’ restrictions, which means he cannot claim benefits. He is running his own business, which prior to pandemic was doing really well. Sadly, his business has been affected by the pandemic, which left him with no income whatsoever. He has not been trading for a full financial year and therefore is not entitled to receive a Self-employment support grant from the Government. He has no family in the UK he can turn to for support. As a result, he accumulated debts and fell into arrears and is now being threatened with eviction.
If we can provide enough evidence he is destitute or is at imminent risk of destitution, we can apply for change of conditions of leave to allow access to public funds. It is a separate online application where he will have to enrol his biometrics again. Bearing in mind there is a considerable delay with the biometric enrolment at the moment, that will leave him in a very vulnerable position indeed.
The Immigration Rules are changing every 6 months roughly, arn’t they?
The Immigration Rules, policies and application procedures are changing on a frequent basis. We have to be very up-to-speed with all the updates because everything changes so quickly. It certainly keeps us on our toes
Want to get involved?
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S&C has been awarded funding from the European Journalism Centre Covid-19 Support Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on diverse communities and sectors in Portsmouth:
- voluntary sector, including charities, community groups and social enterprises
- small businesses and self-employed people
- BAME communities
We have also been awarded funding from the Public Interest News Foundation Emergency Fund to explore the social impact of Covid-19 on migrants, and asylum seekers and refugees.