The leader of North Yorkshire County Council has called on the government to speed up the processing of Ukrainian refugees.
Councillor Carl Les, the son of a Polish refugee, said while he understood the threat of agents of Russian President Vladimir Putin infiltrating refugee groups coming to the UK, due to the scale and severity of the situation facing Ukrainians the UK must take some of the risk.
Coun Les was speaking after Aire Valley division councillor Andy Brown raised concerns how several Ukrainian families arriving in his area had reported positive experiences due to the efforts of the county council and voluntary sector, but had suffered stress and delays due to visa applications and other red tape.
Coun Brown, the authority’s Green Party group co-ordinator, said: “We can be proud of our local residents and the welcome they have offered to people from abroad, but as a country I think we can be somewhat ashamed of some of the systems we have applied to people in danger.”
The comments follow sustained criticism that other European countries have welcomed large numbers of refugees open-armed, but the UK government is applying a complicated visa system.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has defended the UK’s decision to demand visas from Ukrainians fleeing the war, saying Russia could smuggle female agents into the UK among Ukrainian refugees to carry out chemical or biological attacks.
The government has stated it is continuing to speed up visa processing, including boosting caseworkers and simplifying the forms, but Coun Les said he felt more could be done.
Since taking the helm of the authority in 2015, Coun Les has called for North Yorkshire, which has one of the country’s highest proportions of White British residents, to be a “welcoming place for all”.
He said he believed while the county council was doing everything it could to help the refugees, there was the government should take further action.
Coun Les said a video put out by Vladimir Putin purporting to show Ukrainian President Zelensky telling his people to surrender illustrated what the Russians can do, so “they can certainly infiltrate people coming to this country”.
He said: “I don’t want to minimise the threat to personal safety or to exploitation and I certainly don’t want to minimise the threat to national security.
“There’s about 300 Ukrainians coming through the system that we’re managing, but there’s two million evacuees living in Poland at the moment.”
Coun Les said he had spoken to a relative of his working at the bus station in Krakow in Poland this week who was looking after refugees.
He said: “They’re living in homes, the lucky ones, some are also in hotels, being sponsored by Western business people. Many are living in villages halls, many are living in church halls or churches themselves. The unlucky ones are actually living in bus stations and railway stations.
“I would urge the government to speed up the process. Not minimising those threats, but just urge them to speed up the process and let’s take some of the risk and take the risk over here in this country once we have got people out of the war zone.”