'It's a mess': UK to vet Ukraine refugees at Calais as French claim hundreds rejected

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By Alasdair Sandford  & AFP
A sign saying 'No to war' over Russia's invasion of Ukraine is seen at the Ligue 1 match between RC Lens and Brest at Lens' Stade Bollaert, northern France, March 5, 2022.
A sign saying 'No to war' over Russia's invasion of Ukraine is seen at the Ligue 1 match between RC Lens and Brest at Lens' Stade Bollaert, northern France, March 5, 2022.   -   Copyright  FRANCOIS LO PRESTI / AFP

The British government has vowed to speed up processing visas for Ukrainian refugees, in response to accusations that few have been allowed to enter the UK so far.

Hundreds have arrived at the northern French port of Calais, seeking to reach the UK. London says it intends to install a visa application centre there for Ukrainian refugees, but many have reportedly been directed elsewhere.

British Home Secretary (interior minister) Priti Patel has rejected accusations from the French government that Ukrainian refugees had been turned back.

It is "wrong to say that we are only sending people back, that is absolutely not the case, we support those who came to Calais," she told parliament on Monday. Patel added that the new visa application centre was "far from the port", insisting on the need not to create "bottlenecks in Calais".

"It's only right that we have the right processes in place to screen people and protect people," she added.

Local MP Pierre-Henri Dumont said that half of an estimated 600 Ukrainians who arrived in Calais had been forced to go to Brussels or other destinations after they were unable to reach Britain. "It's a mess, to be clear," he said on Tuesday.

The migration issue is at the root of long-standing tensions between London and Paris, especially since Brexit, of which border control was one of the great promises.

UK Defence Minister Ben Wallace promised on Tuesday morning that the process would be sped up. Britain, he said, had pledged to take "200,000 Ukrainians under the family scheme", and that "under the humanitarian scheme it is unlimited".

"The overall offer to Ukrainian refugees is vast," he told the BBC.

No entry 'without controls'

Boris Johnson promised on Monday that Britain would be "as generous as possible", but his government has been criticised for taking a far more restrictive approach than EU countries.

So far London has only accepted Ukrainians with family connections in the UK and the government has admitted "only small numbers" have arrived so far.

Boris Johnson defended his government's policy on Monday. "We already have two very, very generous avenues" of welcoming Ukrainians to the UK, the prime minister said on television.

He added that family reunification rules "could potentially see hundreds of thousands of people coming to this country" as well as via the "humanitarian route".

But the Conservative leader warned that the United Kingdom would not let in refugees "without any checks or checks". "We will be as generous as possible," he said.

The Home Office (interior ministry) said on Monday evening that 17,700 applications from Ukraine had been submitted for family reunification, but only 300 visas had so far been issued. The Labour opposition described the process as "shockingly low and painfully slow".

On Saturday, French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin criticised the "totally inadequate response" and the "lack of humanity" of the United Kingdom towards Ukrainian refugees, in a letter to his British counterpart.

The prefecture of the French department of Pas-de-Calais said on Sunday that almost half of more than 500 Ukrainians who had arrived at the port had been turned back by the British authorities.

Boris Johnson, meeting his Dutch and Canadian counterparts Mark Rutte and Justin Trudeau on Monday, announced £175 million (€211 million) in additional British aid for Ukraine, saying this brought the total to "around £400 million (€483 million).

The latest United Nations figures on Tuesday said that more than two million Ukrainians have fled abroad from the Russian invasion, with more than a million arriving in Poland.