British lawmakers and France are increasing pressure on the UK government to simplify visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees as it emerged fewer than 1,000 visas had been issued so far.
Ian Blackford, the Westminster leader of the Scottish National Party, told Prime Minister Boris Johnson in parliament on Wednesday that "nobody should support" the British government's response to the refugee crisis sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.
"760 visa approvals in two weeks is disgraceful. In that time Poland has taken over 1.2 million refugees. Hungary has taken 190,000 refugees. Germany has taken over 50,000 refugees. Italy over 17,000 refugees. Ireland, a country of just over 5 million people, has given sanctuary to three times as many refugees as the United Kingdom," he said.
"Does the Prime Minister find it acceptable that his Home Secretary has overseen one of the slowest, most bureaucratic and incompetent refugee responses in the whole of Europe," he added.
More than 2.15 million Ukrainian people have now fled their war-torn country with neighbouring countries — Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova — welcoming nearly 1.9 million alone. A further 235,745 have made their way to "other European countries", according to the UN Office for Refugees. The German government confirmed to Euronews on Wednesday that at least 80,000 Ukrainian refugees had arrived in the country.
Ukrainians being 'turned back'
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary from the main opposition Labour party, also delivered a stark rebuke to the government in parliament on Tuesday, arguing "most (Ukrainian) people are still being held up by Home Office bureaucracy or being turned away."
She also sharply criticised Home Secretary Priti Patel for affirming to the House that a visa processing centre was operational in Calais, when it hasn't been set up.
"The Home Secretary said yesterday it's wrong to say we're just turning people back but there are 600 people in Calais right now who've been turned back and are being told to go to Brussels where the visa centre only is open three days a week, or Paris where people are still being told the next appointment is the 15th of March, a week away. In Warsaw people are also being told the next appointment is the 15th of March, a week away, and in Chisinau the booking system seems to have completely broken down," she said.
"The Home Office was warned by the Chief Inspector in November that the geographical spread of visa applications centres was a real problem for vulnerable applicants leading to difficult journeys yet they did nothing about it even when they were given weeks of warning by British intelligence that an invasion was coming," she also said.
The Home Office confirmed to Euronews that a visa processing centre is to be opened in Lille on Thursday.
“The UK stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the people of Ukraine and we have taken urgent action to process visas at speed for all those eligible to the Ukraine Family Scheme, while carrying out vital security checks. We have protected appointments at all of our visa application centres to ensure there is sufficient capacity and deployed extra staff to help people through the process as quickly as possible," the Home office said.
“In light of the risk from criminals actively operating in the area around Calais, we have set up a new temporary Visa Application Centre in Lille which will open tomorrow focused on referrals only for people in the area eligible for the scheme," it added.
Some countries, such as Ireland, have waived visa requirements altogether for Ukrainians.
The UK has for now extended the visas of Ukrainian nationals already in the country, opened up a Family Scheme and created a new sponsorship scheme for Ukrainians without family ties to the UK allowing sponsors including communities, authorities or private sponsors to welcome refugees.
The government said it is prepared to welcome up to 200,000 refugees. But, fewer than 1,000 visas have been approved so far out of 22,000 applications.
The French government has also called on Britain to open a visa centre in Calais with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin decrying the UK's "totally inadequate response" and "lack of humanity" towards Ukrainian refugees in a letter to Patel over the weekend.
On Monday he told French television that for Ukrainian refugees who do not have relatives in the UK, "the English ask them to go to Brussels, ask them to go to Paris to get these visas."
"When you've travelled 60 hours with your family, you don't send them back, at least that's what the French government thinks, you don't send them back to Paris or Brussels to get these visas. So we're asking for a consulate in Calais to send English people to do these visas. I have called the British minister twice to do this," he stressed.
He said only "technocracy, British bureaucracy" were holding refugees back.
Euronews has contacted the French government to know how many Ukrainian refugees have now arrived in France.
The Ukrainian ambassador to the UK, Vadym Prystaiko, also bemoaned "bureaucratic hassles" during a hearing of the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday.
He told parliamentarians that "we do understand that security checks must be thorough especially at a time of military conflict but we also believe that some bureaucratic procedures could be lessened, simplified."
He welcomed the decision to extend visas for those already in the country and to facilitate family reunification but added that the "mosts sensitive issue (is) how can we open up more possibilities for those people who have no specific connection to UK citizens and now want to come here?"
"We estimate roughly that there are 50-60,000 Ukrainians living right now (...) It's not on the level of Canada where out of 33 million, 1.3 (million) Ukrainians," he said, adding: "I expect 100,000 at least to come here to their relatives."
He said visa procedures were "always bureaucratic hassles" even before the war.
"I have to tell you that even when I was coming here as ambassador, I got my visa on time. Although I was already approved by your government for half a year, my wife didn't have it. So even simple things like that, bureaucracy is so tough," he emphasised.