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CALAIS, France, March 8 (Reuters) – When Russian troops invaded Ukraine and thousands of its citizens began to flee, London-based Ukrainian Natalya Verbovetskyy headed in the opposite direction to save his 17-year-old daughter and her sister.
They met in Romania before crossing Europe by bus. Now, however, they are holed up in a hostel in Calais, a port city in northern France, after British border agents denied his sister permission to board the ferry without a visa.
“They asked for all these documents and for them to be translated into English,” Verbovetskyy, a hotel worker whose husband had traveled with her for help, told Reuters outside the hostel.
Verbovetskyy, exhausted from the trip and worried about her mother, who remained in Ukraine, said she was not sure the visa would arrive because they did not have all the necessary paperwork.
Calais Mayor Natacha Bouchart estimated that some 600 Ukrainians trying to reach Britain had been turned away at the port, half of whom were still awaiting visas.
Bouchart made the local hostel available as emergency accommodation. Its 150 rooms are full and local authorities say Britain must translate its words into action.
“The British say ‘we will welcome you’ but in fact no, they close the door. It’s inhumane,” said Bouchart, standing in front of Calais town hall where the French and Ukrainian flags flew.
“WE WILL PRAY AND WAIT”
Unlike the European Union, which has said any Ukrainian fleeing war can stay in the 27-member bloc for three years, Britain requires them to have a valid visa upon arrival.
Only those who have family members in Britain can apply for a visa. The UK government has said a second visa route, requiring sponsorship from an organisation, charity or business, will soon be available. Read more
“The routes we have put in place follow extensive engagement with Ukrainian partners,” said a spokesperson for the UK Home Office. “This is a complex and rapidly changing picture and as the situation evolves we will continue to constantly monitor our support.”
But Verbovetskyy said even for those with family, the process is complicated. She traveled to Paris with her sister on Monday to apply for a visa at the British consulate and was told they would only have a response after six days.
“We will pray and wait,” she said.
Paris and London have traded barbs over the UK government’s tough approach.
France has urged Britain to set up consular services in Calais. Bouchart said Britain should simplify its procedures and suggested a “visa-free” stamp for Ukrainians.
Calais is no stranger to Franco-British tensions over the management of migratory flows. The harbor and surrounding coastline have long been a jumping off point for people trying to reach Britain via lorries and dinghies.
Hundreds of migrants from Africa and the Middle East, fleeing war and persecution or seeking a better life abroad, are scattered in Calais.
Some charities allege a double standard in the treatment of migrants from Ukraine and those from elsewhere. Migrants in Calais have long complained about lack of access to food, water and shelter.
“It’s goodwill against abuse,” said Nikolai Posner, of the NGO Utopia 56 which helps migrants in Calais.
Reporting by Layli Foroudi; edited by Richard Lough and Alex Richardson
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