UK says refugee security checks needed as Ukraine calls for visa relaxation

  • UK visa policy criticised as too slow, bureaucratic
  • PM Johnson says visa checks needed for security reasons
  • Britain has granted over 950 visas for Ukrainians so far
  • European nations have admitted many more without visas

LONDON, March 9 (Reuters) - Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Wednesday Britain needed to carry out security checks on Ukrainian refugees, after facing calls to relax visa conditions for those fleeing relentless bombardment by invading Russian forces.

Unlike many countries elsewhere in Europe that have accepted Ukrainian refugees without visas, Britain has required them, and there has been widespread criticism that this procedure has been too slow and bureaucratic. read more

Britain has granted over 950 visas to Ukrainians since the start of the war. By comparison, Poland, a neighbour of Ukraine, has taken in more than 1.2 million Ukrainians.

Earlier on Wednesday, Ukraine's ambassador to London called on the British government to relax visa conditions for people in what has become the fastest and biggest flow of refugees in Europe since World War Two. read more

Johnson told parliament the visa checks were needed because the Kremlin had singled out Britain over its stance on the crisis in Ukraine.

"There are some people who would like to dispense with checks altogether and simply to wave people through. I do think that is irresponsible," he said. "We are going to be as generous as we can possibly be, but we must have checks."

Speaking to the British parliament's Home Affairs committee, Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko said he understood security checks were required but asked for the process to be simplified.

"Most people don't have passports with them, their homes were bombed, we're not printing passports in my embassy," he said. "In reality, if you have a one-year-old, it is definitely not a terrorist. So you can strike them out of the list of potential terrorist risks."

Prystaiko estimated that about 100,000 Ukrainians fleeing the war might eventually try to reunite with relatives in Britain. He added, however, that most Ukrainians would prefer to stay in eastern Europe to remain close to family.

In a sign of the difficulties obtaining a British visa, Prystaiko, Ukraine's top diplomat in Britain since 2020, said that his wife had struggled to get a visa when he was appointed.

The government has defended its stance, citing a 2018 nerve agent attack on a former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal in the English city of Salisbury which Britain blames on three Russian military intelligence officers who entered the country posing as tourists using fake identities.

"We know how unscrupulous (Russian President Vladimir) Putin can be in his methods," Johnson said. "It would not be right to expose this country to unnecessary security risks and we will not do it."

The Conservative prime minister added that he expected the number of British visas offered to refugees would rise very sharply "to in the region of the hundreds of thousands".

Reporting by Andrew MacAskill and Michael Holden; editing by Mark Heinrich

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