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Why Britain denies visas to Ukrainian scientists

Why Britain denies visas to Ukrainian scientists

Serhiy Sydorenko

An international congress of pancreatologists was to take place in Southampton (UK), June 24-28, under the chairmanship of Professor Natalia Gubergrits, a Ukrainian doctor and a recognized medical authority. The congress, naturally, took place. However the chairman needed to be replaced at the last minute.

The British had refused to grant a visa to the Ukrainian professor, author of more than 1,000 scholarly papers, 46 inventions, and 17 monographs in the area of internal medicine, stating that they “were not convinced” of her intent to engage in scientific medical activities in the UK.

Altogether ten Ukrainian doctors who had planned to attend this congress were denied visas. They included three professors of international renown — Volodymyr Kopchak, Ihor Khomyak, Volodymyr Klymenko. All of them, according to the British, had decided to deceive the embassy and fly to London “under the pretext” of participating in a medical symposium.

All necessary information, paid flight tickets and hotels, as well as repeated requests by the organizers of the congress to facilitate the issuance of visas to the doctors, were ignored by the British side. Moreover, as a result of this “special operation,” Ukrainian medical science has experienced a significant loss. Ukraine lost the right to host an international medical meeting in 2016.

European Pravda (Eupravda, division of Ukrainska Pravda — Ed.) has learned that instances of unjustified and high-profile rejections by the British have become more frequent in recent months.

British friendship

The United Kingdom has always stood out ( and continues to stand out) among other countries of Western Europe. The UK initially absolutely did not want to join the EU. Then, in 1973, it joined the community but remained a “country of exception.” In certain areas, British legislation does not agree with the general European one, and this feature was negotiated during the agreement on the terms of membership.

Immigration and visa policy are among the exceptions. The UK retains passport control at the border with mainland Europe (even when passengers arrive by train through the English Channel tunnel and not by sea). London issues and will continue to issue its own visas, not the Schengen ones.

Additionally, talks are taking place currently regarding the possibility of UK’s exit from the European Union. However, London is tightly linked with Brussels financially, and the UK has received huge bonuses from its membership in the EU and the total EU market.

Britain’s relationship with Ukraine is equally double.

Politically,  the UK remains one of the “friends of Ukraine” in Europe. This is partly explained by the long complicated relationship between London and the Kremlin. In the UK, it is understood perfectly what Russian pressure means and what Russia’s “unofficial methods of dealing” with opponents represent. It is here that many disgraced oligarchs have settled, and it is here that the former FSB (Russian intelligence) agent Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with radioactive polonium. The British embassy in Ukraine is among the most active. Moreover, the UK has repeatedly stated its support for Kyiv’s European perspective.

But as soon as you move from external policy to other (even related) spheres, London’s attitude to Kyiv is reversed. The visa area (which is the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, not the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) is very revealing here. The UK immediately “forgets” its friendship with Ukraine and begins to treat Ukraine as a third world country that requires more punishment than support.

London is the only EU capital that refuses to simplify the visa regime for certain categories of citizens (including, by the way, scientists). Furthermore — a fact generally unknown — Ukraine lacks even a British consular department responsible for issuing visas. All the passports of applicants from Ukraine,  applying for British visas, are transported to the British embassy in Poland. The applications are not reviewed in Kyiv.

That in itself is rather surprising, since the 45-million country does have a British diplomatic mission. But apart from the moral aspects, the question of time (to issue a visa promptly is physically impossible), and the protection of personal data, another problem arises linked to unjustified visa refusals.

World famous migrants

Eupravda has in its possession documents submitted to the embassy by a group of Ukrainian doctors as well as the embassy’s answers that accompanied the visa denials. The applicants had provided confirmation from the organizers and sponsors (renowned international health care corporations) confirming they had paid for flight tickets, accommodations, and all expenses of the scientists in the UK.

That turned out to be insufficient.

“You have failed to provide sufficient evidence to convince me about the clear purpose of your visit …an additional personal conversation with you was not necessary to reach a decision on your application,” the embassy response stated.

The visa officer claimed to have “tried contacting the conference organizers with the request they confirm your participation, but I have not received such confirmation…,” and also “I had tried to contact Abbot Laboratories (sponsoring company that had paid for travel and accommodations for a number of the scientists), but even this failed.” “In light of this … I am not satisfied with your intent to visit the UK. I am not convinced that you really want to make a brief visit to Britain and that you will leave the country at the end of this trip,” — the visa employee stated, who did not indicate his name on the document and simply signed it with the initials MJG.

It is noteworthy that Ukrainian doctors received their passports with the visa refusals on June 24 — the first day of the conference. Therefore, even if they had received the visas they would not have been able to use them since their flight tickets had expired the previous day. “Although we had presented the passports a month earlier, there was plenty of time. It is more likely the refusal was deliberately delayed in order to leave us no possibility to protest,” Professor Gubergrits told Eupravda.

Apparently, the British visa officers are not taught to use Google. It is enough to type in the name of Natalia Gubergrits in the search line to get hundreds of confirmations on her person.

But that’s not even the question.

It took Eupravda less than an hour to do something that the visa service had failed to do — namely, to receive an answer from the organizers of the symposium in Britain. Furthermore, it became clear the organizers had confirmed the participation of the Ukrainian delegation to the embassy, but their response was ignored.

“The conference organizers had responded to the very first request for information — three weeks before the start of the conference. We sent the list of all the participants from Ukraine,” British Professor Colin Johnson, who directed the organization of the symposium in Southampton, told Eupravda. “Additionally, the day before the conference, I contacted the embassy in Warsaw at the request of Professor Gubergrits and sent a confirmation by e-mail. However, I never received a suitable response from them,” he said.

“I am incredibly outraged that my country was not able to cope with the processing of visa applications for bona fide doctors and scientists who planned to participate in a key scientific event in their field of specialization,” the British scientist said with emotion.

As Eupravda has determined, the “unwillingness” by the visa centers to see the confirmations was not the only problem. All ten Ukrainian scientists received identical rejections. All stated that the visa officer “had tried to contact” Abbott Laboratories. However, other health care companies sponsored several of the doctors, and Abbott had no relation to them. It turns out that the British did not even try to obtain the information and simply limited themselves to a formal “reply” explaining the reasons for the visa denials!

Finally, it should be noted that several of the “rejected” doctors have repeatedly visited the UK before (including Natalia Gubergrits — four times), and all of them have traveled to European countries multiple times, as demonstrated by visas and stamps in their passports. Against this background, to assume that they wanted to emigrate to Britain under the pretext of a trip to the symposium requires a rich imagination.

Eupravda has paid much attention to the “medical incident” since it is particularly revealing. However, the publication has evidence that Britain’s visa policy has changed thoroughly. Prominent cases of unreasonable refusal are not unusual.

For example, this spring a team of students who were going to Oxford to participate in an annual competition of media law did not receive visas. “Two girls were denied visas, and one young man was given a visa even though all had identical documents,” comments Taras Shevchenko, director of the Institute of Media Law. “We have been taking students to these competitions in the UK for five years and this is the first time we faced rejection. So, from our experience, the visa policy has deteriorated.

He said his organization has filed an appeal with the British, but that it was impossible to resolve the problem.

What can be done?

The official responses of authorities in Ukraine and the UK to the “medical incident” have not yet been issued. Eupravda has reported its findings on the incident to Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which was not aware of this problem. Meanwhile, the publication’s sources at the British Foreign Office confirm they are aware of this outrageous case and are learning from it.

Usually consular services (and the British are not an exception) do not comment to the press on their decisions regarding specific visa applications. But given the notoriety of this denial, Eupravda is ready to give the British diplomatic service the right to respond and to publish their explanation.   And, frankly, in this instance the normal explanations that applicants must prepare their documents better are absolutely inadequate. Even apologies for this specific case will not be enough. It is evident the problem is in the system, and it must be changed.

The head of the NGO “Europe without Barriers” Iryna Sushko points out that additional problems in visa policy appeared after the processing of visa applications was moved from Kyiv to Warsaw.

“Officially London gives commonplace reasons to explain this decision — cost optimization by the MIA of Britain and its immigration service.  I don’t know if they realized significant savings. But in any case, this kind of processing of submitted documents is absolutely abnormal. Budgetary savings by the British should not affect Ukrainian applicants!” Sushko says.

The second problem is the British refusal to apply the Ukraine-EU agreement regarding visa facilitation for certain categories of citizens. If the pancreatology congress had taken place in countries governed by the Schengen agreement, this situation would have been practically impossible, because scientists benefit from a simplified procedure for issuing visas.

“We need to negotiate with them, so that they simplify the visa regime. This is the most complex period. Political will by the British Ministry of Internal Affairs is needed, which has not been evident so far, Sushko says.

London’s persistence in tightening the visa regime for Ukrainians is surprising. After all, according to all indications, Ukraine does not pose a migration threat to Britain. The British do not face a problem of labor migration from Ukraine. Ukraine is not among the countries whose residents most frequently ask for asylum in the UK. And, according to the British migration profile, Ukraine is considered a fairly prosperous country.

We would like to think that Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs will be able to pressure the UK in connection with the egregious cases of recent months. We also would like to think that the British will cooperate. Meanwhile, there are frankly few reasons for optimism. Even high profile organizations, such as Europe without Barriers, complain that the British embassy simply ignores their proposals for consultation and cooperation.

Instead of a postscript

By the way, the “medical incident” did not simply end with the cancellation of the trip by the Ukrainian doctors to the symposium. The consequences turned out to be more serious.

As Natalia Gubergritz explains, “The fact that we did not get to London has had a disastrous consequence for Ukrainian medicine, ” she says. “The fact is that in 2016 the same kind of annual congress was to take place in Kyiv as this year in Southampton. And it took a very difficult struggle to win the right to hold it in Ukraine. During the entire period of Ukraine’s independence this would have been the first really European medical congress in our country. And what do you think? In our absence in Southampton, they had a vote and postponed the Kyiv congress till 2019! That is because we weren’t there and had no opportunity to vote and to present our arguments,” she concludes.

One can only “thank” the unnamed British visa officer for negligence. And thank a country like Britain for its treatment of Ukrainian visa applicants as citizens of a third world country.

By Serhiy Sydorenko, Eupravda, July 4, 2014

Translation: Anna Mostovych

Source: European Pravda

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