Two of our good friends are getting married this summer in a place they've met at several years ago – a ski resort in Austria. While I'm extremely happy they're finally tying the knot, there is a part of organizing a trip to their wedding that I'm not loking forward to... and that is getting a visa.
Let me tell you a story. The first summer following my university graduation my boyfriend and I decided to go on vacation to a popular tourist attraction in Europe. The choice of a destination meant that we would have to apply for visas. I have already traveled to EU during my student years for a youth project without difficulty. So I naively believed that simply adhering to requirements stated on the embassy’s website was enough to be granted an entry into your country of choice. At that point I haven’t given much thought to my changed social status and its possible implications for our summer plans.
After spending some time meticulously gathering required documents (tickets, confirmation of hotel reservations, insurance, proof of employment and financial means, etc.), we finally submitted our papers. Several days later I got my passport back with a strange looking stamp and a piece of paper that contained a list of possible grounds for refusal (e.g. incomplete or incorrect documents, insufficient funds, etc.). Mine read: “For other reasons”.
At that moment I did not know that in my case “other reasons” could have included nationality (Ukrainian), sex (female), marital (single) and social status (recent graduate), or a combination of the above. I knew some people had problems applying for visas, but I have always assumed it was their own fault because they had either accidentally or intentionally breached the rules. After some research, however, I learned that although EU nationals could travel to Ukraine visa-free for already several years, the way visa regime functioned for Ukrainians remained a painful issue to many of our citizens, especially women.
For instance, after last visa regime liberalization in 2009, a study by Korrespondent magazine found [RUS] that most Ukrainians did not consider the procedure any simpler, on the contrary, with economic crisis looming large the ‘window to Europe’ for our citizens remained narrow, with only the chosen ones of a particular social and financial status being able to enter. Rejections based on bare prejudice also remained common. The magazine cited a case of an advertising agency director Maryna Bublyk, who’s been refused a tourist visa without an explanation after one of consular staff members hinted that a single good looking woman like her was “not allowed” to enter Spain... even if she was making more money than did some married couples. Commercial director of an airline, Tetyana Romanchenko, shared a similar story of being refused a business visa by the Austrian consulate. Its staff did not even bother replying to her written enquiry about what motivated their decision.
While searching for further insights into my own situation I also learned that many travel specialists openly advised single women to reconsider their travel plans to the EU and warned all of their clients that embassies’ enquiries into their lives could easily reach the level of absurdity. Moreover, a 2010 report [UKR] by GolosUA stated that most Ukrainians found visa application procedures downright humiliating, while our citizens were also most commonly turned away at the EU border, with Brazilians being second, Russians – third, Georgians – forth, and Belarusians – fifth. Interestingly, the next nations on the list – Croatia and Serbia – had since secured a visa-free entry to the EU, leading the way for Albania, and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ukrainian government, however, was still unable to follow in their footsteps, with predictable consequences for our citizens. For instance, the 2010 study by civic initiative “Europe Without Barriers” found that the worst Schengen area consulates in their treatment of Ukrainians were those of Greece, Spain, and Italy, while only some former Socialist bloc countries like Hungary or Lithuania were friendly toward Ukrainian applicants.
Back on that unfortunate summer day, however, I had little clue about such details. After learning that due to the peak of a tourist season I would not be able to appeal consulate’s decision for the next three months, I remember being angry at losing our tourist arrangements and wandering what repercussions this situation might have on my future travels. I also remember feeling deeply humiliated; in fact, I think this might have been the most humiliating experience of my life so far.
Since then some time has passed and certain circumstances changed. Ukraine has recently signed a final agreement that should lead to the eventual cancellation of visas with the EU, and the share of refusals toward Ukrainian citizens is said to continuously decrease. I have also traveled to many countries since then, including the country that rejected my first Schengen application. However, the attitudes of most consulates are slow to change. So until our government fulfills requirements for a visa-free regime, I am going to dread visa application processes. And it’s not even the paperwork that I mind so much. It’s the whole attitude of being assumed guilty until (and if at all) you succeed to prove yourself innocent.