UK govt slammed for visa 'farce' on Ukraine refugees

People queue up outside the Overseas Visitors Records Office in London on March 8, 2022. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

LONDON (AFP) - A British government watchdog and Christian church leaders on Wednesday (March 9) slammed the interior ministry for its handling of visa applications for Ukrainians fleeing Russia's invasion - with a Holocaust survivor said to be among those held up.

Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman Rob Behrens said reports of "chaos and confusion" mirrored complaints previously received about the under-fire Home Office.

He called for "unnecessary delays and bureaucracy" to be removed, and for the process to be better resourced, made more efficient and transparent.

Leaders of Christian denominations in London issued a joint appeal after meeting at the capital's Ukrainian Catholic cathedral, expressing concern at Europe's "greatest humanitarian crisis" since World War II.

"How can mothers with young children, the elderly and the disabled, who have travelled a thousand miles, be expected to complete online application forms in a language foreign to them?" they said.

"Times of war require swift action and flexibility, the easing of normal procedures, and the removal of complex bureaucratic obstacles that can easily turn hope into despair and resignation."

Ukraine's ambassador to London Vadym Prystaiko earlier told a parliamentary committee there had always been "bureaucratic hassles" when applying for a British visa.

While he got his on time before he took up his post, his wife did not, he told the House of Commons' Home Affairs Committee.

The Board of Deputies of British Jews, meanwhile, said it was concerned about a 90-year-old Holocaust and 1930s famine survivor from Ukraine who was caught up in visa delays in Poland.

The Jewish News reported that the family of Ms Kateryna Razumenko were desperately trying to get her to London with her 62-year-old daughter Larysa, who suffers from disabilities.

But after fleeing bombardment in Kharkiv, they were stuck in limbo in temporary accommodation in Poland, the newspaper said.

Home Secretary Priti Patel and her department have been accused of forcing Ukrainian refugees to jump through hoops to secure visas to travel to Britain.

Hundreds have travelled to the Channel port of Calais in the hope of crossing to join family in Britain, only to have been turned away because of a lack of travel documents.

The British response has earned unfavourable comparisons with the European Union, which is allowing Ukrainians three-year residency rights without applying for a visa.

So far, Britain has granted 957 visas, according to Downing Street.

Mr Prystaiko suggested that with 50,000 to 60,000 Ukrainians in Britain, some 100,000 of their relatives may seek to join them.

The former head of the British Army, Mr Richard Dannatt, told Times Radio that the British position was a "national embarrassment" and "out of line" with the rest of Europe. "It's an own-goal of some significance," he added.

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The Spectator magazine, formerly edited by Prime Minister Boris Johnson when he was a journalist, said Britain was "failing Ukraine's refugees".

It carried a front-page cartoon headlined "Border farce", in a mocking pun on Britain's Border Force agency.

Mr Johnson - who made border control a key plank of his Brexit campaign to leave the EU - insists that Britain needs to carry out proper security checks before issuing visas.

But Mr Behrens said: "In this horrendous situation swift action is needed to make sure the process of getting a visa is simple, accessible and quick. Lives depend on it."

Ms Patel caused confusion this week by insisting that an emergency visa application centre had been set up in Calais, only to backtrack and say it was not operational.

The Home Office then confirmed that the centre would be set up 70 miles (110km) from Calais in Lille. A spokesman said it will open Thursday.

The decision to locate it in Lille was "in the light of the risks from criminals actively operating in the area around Calais", the spokesman added.

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