Is it easy to gain refugee status in Ukraine?


Approximately 2 thousand 300 people have received refugee status since Ukraine declared independence. According to the UNHCR [UN High Commissioner for Refugees], this is a very small figures. What is the problem? What legal norms enable migrants to settle permanently in Ukraine?

Iryna Shtohrin: Our scrutiny of the situation with gaining refugee status was prompted by the story of the Russian journalist Alexander Kosvintsev. The headlines through the press and Internet “Russian journalist gains political asylum in Ukraine” led us to examine the situation since there is no actual status of political asylum. However Article 106 of the Constitution states that the President is empowered to “adopt decisions on granting the citizenship of Ukraine, termination of the citizenship of Ukraine, and on granting asylum in Ukraine”

According to Mykola Yerukh, Director of the Department of the Migration Service and Future Planning of the State Committee on Nationalities and Religious Affairs, this norm has never been applied.

Mykola Yerukh  The idea of the article is that the President may grant asylum to outstanding figures. Firstly, however, nobody has defined who is to be considered such a figure, and secondly, the norm is totally discriminatory towards other categories of migrants. The norm is therefore not functional. Furthermore, a draft law on asylum which had its first reading 8 years ago has still not been passed.

And in my view the current law on refugees totally absorbs this constitutional norm.

Iryna Shtohrin: Alexander Kosvintsev also confirms that he did not approach the President, but went through the established procedure for gaining refugee status.

Alexander Kosvintsev: I consulted with the legal service of the UNHCR office. They explained the specific features of Ukrainian legislation and told me I could apply to any migration service office in any region.  I needed to submit an application and receive a document confirming that I was undergoing procedure for gaining refugee status. If I was turned down [If the migration service decided not to consider the application – this is the first stage in Ukraine – translator], I could submit my documents again.  All my documents were accepted, and were studied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and SBU [Ukrainian Security Service]. The final decision, in my case positive, was issued by the migration service.  I had provided a full collection of documents demonstrating that I was being persecuted on political grounds.

Iryna Shtohrin: The very fact that the Russian journalist gave political grounds for his application was the reason for the reports that he had received political asylum. What exactly did you tell the migration service?

Alexander Kosvintsev:  There were two inter-connected circumstances. Firstly, I had been involved in journalist investigations for a long time, some of which involved high-ranking people in Kubas, in the Kemerov region.  One person was the governor, a very influential figure in Russia, - Aman Tupyeev. I wrote about corruption and other unseemly stories. And secondly, I had become a member of the United Democratic Front and organized Garry Kasparov’s visit to Kemerovo. The authorities resorted to all kinds of obstruction  however we managed to run everything successfully. Straight after that I came under a massive amount of psychological pressure. They didn’t allow me on a place, simply took me off the flight, and put psychological pressure on me through an unwarranted court case.  The prosecutor’s office initiated a criminal investigation. I felt myself in danger and began acting.

Iryna Shtohrin: Alexander Kosvintsev submitted his documents to the Lviv Department on Nationalities and Migration. The Head of that department, Bohdan Zaverukha reports that consideration of the Russian journalist’s case took a whole year. He said that Russians very rarely apply for refugee status and that applications are normally made by people from Asia.

What do these people want and what prompts them to seek a better life in Ukraine?  What difficulties do they encounter?.

Lesya Bakalets  They can’t live in their homeland and no one else wants to take them. They are asylum seekers who for years can’t receive refugee status in Ukraine, and therefore don’t have the right to work, live and have a family there. Most of these people have at best temporary documents. This is what Ribar, a Kurdish asylum seeker from Iran, has. After his past in the partisans and an explosives injury, he decided to flee his homeland. He was hoping to get to Germany, but the people he paid brought him to Ukraine. He’s been waiting in vain for three years to receive refugee status.

Ribar  Three years is a very long time to wait and know nothing. I don’t even know whether I can live in Ukraine at all at the moment. Can I get married here, start a family, find work?

Lesya Bakalets  Ribar works from time to time where he can, mainly at markets. And although he knows four languages and studied a fifth – Russian, nobody will give him a normal job without documents. Without the passport he dreams of he often has encounters with the law enforcement officers. He already knows how to talk to them properly.

Ribar  They want money. They look at my documents and say they’ll take them away. You give them 20 UAH, 30, and they let you go.

Lesya Bakalets  Armenian Seda isn’t able to give a bribe. She’s been ill for many months now and can’t work. The migration service has not given her temporary documents. She only has a piece of paper from the UN that doesn’t have legal force and the telephone number of her doctor.

The UNHCR office for Ukraine, Russia and Moldova is trying to get Seda refugee status. Ribar goes himself to the migration service, but so far they simply change the date on his temporary documents. He says that he wants some certainty: either allow him to remain or deport him, since he effectively can’t leave the country or remain in it.

Ribar  I’m a refugee here. I have asked this country, these people to let me live here. I can’t live in my own country, they’ll kill me. I’m simply asking you to help me.

Lesya Bakalets   The problems for potential refugees begin on the border. Many get refused immediately, under the simplified procedure, since they see no grounds for letting the person stay in the country. There are also not enough interpreters, and therefore people often don’t understand what they need to do.

The Regional Council for the UNHCR office for Ukraine, Russia and Moldova, Natalya Prokopchuk, says that an asylum seeking at the border should already receive information about the rules for refugee status in Ukraine.

Natalya Prokopchuk  According to the Law on Refugees, the State Border Service is authorized to inform people about the procedure for receiving refugee status. If the person has decided to make such an application, it can be submitted to migration service offices, or through representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, or of the State Border Service. This is a person’s right, yet obviously, it doesn’t always happen that way.

Lesya Bakalets   After crossing the border, a person sends his or her application to a regional migration office. How effectively do these work?

Natalya Prokopchuk  Ukraine has signed the Convention on the Status of Refugees, as well as other international documents and agreements. The problem at present is how fully and scrupulously these are adhered to. Over the last nine years, the migration service and State Committee on Nationalities and Religious Affairs have undergone restructuring eight times. There have been cases where over six months, migrations offices did not accept applications for refugee status at all.

Lesya Bakalets   While their applications are being processed, do asylum seekers receive any documents?

Natalya Prokopchuk  It depends what stage of the procedure they’re at. There are about five or six documents and constant delays in issuing them. And when a person doesn’t have documents they can be deported at any moment or detained by the police. They become very vulnerable.

Lesya Bakalets   Asylum seekers don’t have the right to work, and don’t have anything to live on. Does the State provide material assistance?

Natalya Prokopchuk  Daily assistance is 17 UAH, and most people don’t even come to get it, because even travelling from Odessa to Kyiv, say, you’d spend more on transport.

Lesya Bakalets   Are refugees merely a burden on Ukraine, or can these people bring some benefit?

Natalya Prokopchuk  Obviously if you regulate migration, invest in integration of refugees, they can be of benefit to the country. In the first place, through their knowledge, secondly by working and paying taxes. Why not?

There is also the reputation of the country as a democratic state or on the contrary, a country that violates these democratic norms.

Lesya Bakalets   If Ukraine violates articles of the Convention on the Status of Refugees, is it held responsible?

Natalya Prokopchuk  There is no mechanism as such for punishment. It’s the reputation of the country which suffers. If Ukraine signed the Convention on the Status of Refugees or the European Convention on the Prevention of Torture, it committed itself to abide by them.

In 2007 slightly less than fifty people received refugee status.

Iryna Shtohrin: There are really far more people wanting to legalize their status and gain the right to work in Ukraine. What is so difficult about gaining refugee status?

Mykola Yerukh  There is nothing difficult about applying for refugee status. A person can simply state verbally to a border official or police officer that they wish to apply for refugee status. All are provided with interpreters. There are several interviews. However the difficulty is in establishing the reasons provided for leaving their homeland. A lot of time is spent on checking facts, on analysing the situation in the country where the person has come from. Is there really military action there? Are people really persecuted for their religious or political convictions?

Iryna Shtohrin: Clearly people don’t become refugees fleeing from a good life and the wish to find better conditions is absolutely natural.

Ukraine at present is only interesting for most migrant as a transit country.  However, that is another subject.

A programme on Radio Svoboda, 14 February 2007.  The presenter was Iryna Shtohrin.

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