Ukrainians face hurdles going abroad

Aug. 27, 2009, 7:57 p.m. | Maryna Irkliyenko
European visas remain difficult to obtain for Ukrainians, despite an agreement to ease restrictions. Ukrainians still have trouble getting into Europe as visas remain difficult to obtain. The number of refusals is high and the process is expensive and time-consuming, including long lines outside some consulates. Some embassies turn down up to a quarter of the applicants, often for no obvious reason.

“Those [European] countries could be protecting their labor market, using not legal, but rather discriminating methods. But we don’t know reasons for the refusals. We can only guess,” said Iryna Sushko, manager of Europe Without Barriers, a consortium of non-governmental organizations on visa policy of European Union countries.

There is an estimated 4.5 million Ukrainians working abroad, many illegally.

The number of Ukrainians travelling to EU countries has decreased at least 2.6 times after admission of new EU countries (Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Lithuania) to the Schengen Zone in 2008. An estimated 70 percent of Ukrainians travelling to the EU go to these new members of the 27-nation bloc.

The leaders in terms of visa refusals are the embassies of Spain (22.5 percent), Czech Republic (11.9 percent) and France (10 percent), according to a recent report by the Center for Peace, Conversion and Foreign Policy of Ukraine, a think tank. Germany appears to be the most hospitable with just 2.5 percent in refusals. The research also indicates some improvements, such as a general decrease in visa refusals for Ukrainians and introduction of new visa processing technologies.

“The number of refusals varies greatly from one embassy to another. The Spanish embassy is one of the most difficult ones. We get about 30 percent of refusals always,” confirms Anna Suprun, general manager at BTL business travel agency.

After the Orange Revolution, the 2004 democratic uprising that overturned a rigged presidential election, Ukraine relaxed visa requirements for Europeans and North Americans, hoping for reciprocation. And although Ukraine and the EU have signed the agreement on facilitation of the issuance of visas and it came to force in 2008, most Ukrainians have not felt its effects.

“From my practice [of more than a decade] I can say that improvements coming from the agreement apply to multi-visas only [now they are given out for two years, instead of one]. This is the only improvement. Regarding the list of documents, I think it even got worse,” said Suprun.

Borys Tarasyuk, head of the Committee of European Integration and former Minister of Foreign Affairs, sees the situation in a more positive light. “The situation is changing for the better. Particularly, the number of visa refusals is decreasing and the treatment of Ukrainian citizens is improving. In my opinion the tendency is positive,” he told the Kyiv Post in an interview on Aug. 21.

Valentina Maley, a retired school teacher, disagrees. She has recently been in the media spotlight for refusing to accept bad treatment from the Greek consul, and going public with her story.

Maley’s application for a visa was turned down for an unclear reason. “We had already paid for our stay there and for the flight, we couldn’t cancel. I almost lost 1,500 euro, but my daughter went there instead to save the money,” recalls Maley.

Besides, Greek consul Dimitrios Mikhalopulos “smacked my passport on the table, hit the table by his hand. Suddenly the consul pulled out his neck, and start making faces at me, stretched his mouth and eyes with his fingers. Then he jumped to the glass window between us and started punching air in front of it as if he was hitting me.”

Maley told the Kyiv Post that during her 30-years high school teaching career, she “always managed to avoid conflicts dealing with different people. Nobody ever made faces at me.”

Sushko of Europe Without Barriers said they had noticed an increase of complaints about the Greek embassy. “Ukrainian citizens usually don’t address these problems publicly,” she added.

The Greek Embassy said investigation of Maley's case is still under way.

Sometimes Ukrainians choose unusual ways for protest. Recently the British embassy had a performance of folk dance troupe Smerechyna in front of their windows after the dancers were refused visas to perform at Bellingham International Folklore Festival. But the dance failed to convince the ambassador, who upheld the consul’s decision, according to the British Embassy’s website.

British Ambassador Leigh Turner recommended in his online blog that the dance troupe appeal his consul's refusal to issue visas.

The French embassy had a children’s ensemble dance in front of the embassy for three hours in the protest for the same reason. Similar incident happened at the German embassy which refused to issue visas to a children’s choir. The French and Spanish Embassies refused to comment for this article.