Politics

‘UK is a bit far’: Ukrainian refugees will want to stay ‘closer to their roots’, ambassador says

The Ukrainian ambassador to the UK has said he does not believe a huge number of refugees fleeing the country will come to Britain as many want to stay in bordering nations “closer to their roots”.

Appearing in front of the Home Affairs Commons Committee, Vadym Prystaiko told MPs that Ukrainian refugees want to get back to their homes as soon as possible and that “the UK is a bit far for Ukrainians” to travel.

But he stressed that those Ukrainians who have tried to come to the UK have faced “bureaucratic hassles”.

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‘Most Ukrainians will naturally stay close to their homes’

Mr Prystaiko told MPs that for years his fellow citizens have faced visa processing problems in order to travel to the UK, with even his wife initially being unable to get a visa to join him, despite his role as the nation’s representative.

Addressing the committee on Wednesday morning, he said Ukraine was “happy” that the UK had offered to extend visas of Ukrainians already in Britain and for the “reunification of the families”.

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“The people are very happy and very thankful. What we are now coming to is the most sensitive issue, which is how there (could be) more possibilities for people who have no connections to UK citizens and now want to come here,” the diplomat said.

Read more: Russia promises temporary ceasefire to allow Ukrainian citizens to escape

“I want to tell you straight away that the natural place for Ukrainians is close to most of our Slavic tribe, if I can put it like that – independent nations like Poland and Slovakia, where people do not have any language barrier.

“Most Ukrainians will naturally stay close to their homes, to their roots, because families are unfortunately split – the elderly, the women with kids, fled Ukraine when most of the men and women are fighting back home.”

People in Ukraine have been seeking refuge in counties including Poland and Hungary
Image:
People in Ukraine have been seeking refuge in counties including Poland and Hungary

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Ukrainians do not want to be ‘burden’ on UK system

Mr Prystaiko added that he did not believe “people will stay long enough to really be placed and rooted here”, but welcomed the offer of NHS treatment for people coming to the UK.

He said Ukrainians did not want to be a “burden” on the UK system, adding: “Most of these people are well educated and have their own business ideas – most of them are in professions which can be done remotely, like IT.”

The diplomat told MPs that around “50,000 to 60,000” Ukrainians were based in Britain prior to the outbreak of war, and that he would expect “100,000 at least to come here to their relatives”.

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Mr Prystaiko also said that the visa requirement should be lifted for those wanting to flee conflict in their home nation.

“Very sensitive, I understand how sensitive it is for your society, especially after the immigration crisis, refugee crisis with Syrians, which we believe was manufactured by Russia pushing out these people from Syria, flooding with immigration, wave after wave, to Europe,” he told the committee.

“That would definitely resolve all the issues, but how reasonable, how justified it is with your own system, that’s frankly for you to decide.

“We will be happy if all the barriers are dropped for some period of time when we can get maximum (numbers) of people, then we will deal with that.”

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‘We’re not involving ourselves in the fighting’

Shapps defends visa controls

His comments came after Cabinet minister Grant Shapps defended the UK’s insistence on visa controls for Ukrainians.

“I think you would expect us to be wanting to check people’s status before they come in,” he told Sky News.

“We know that Russia are involved in all manner of operations so it’s absolutely right to check that somebody is coming from Ukraine and know who is coming to this country, essentially, and that’s what we are doing.”

Read more: US announces ban on Russian oil imports

Meanwhile, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper told Sky News biometric security checks are important – but Labour wants the government to set up more emergency centres on borders.

Some 760 visas now granted to fleeing Ukrainians

Mr Shapps also confirmed to Sky News that some 760 visas have now been granted to fleeing Ukrainian refugees enabling them to come to the UK, with 22,000 applications “on their way through”.

“No country has given more humanitarian aid to Ukraine than the UK, in the world. We have given £400m, in addition the British people have been incredibly generous as well,” he told Sky News.

Read more: US rejects Polish offer to provide fighter jets to Ukraine

“Geographically we are, of course, spaced further to the West and President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government have told me that they do not want people to move far away, if at all possible, from the country because they want people to be able to come back.

“We are really leaning into this, at the same time respecting Ukraine’s wishes, the government’s wishes, not to pull people a long way away from Ukraine.”

Defence Secretary Ben Wallace is due to update MPs on the situation in Ukraine in the Commons this afternoon.

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