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6 June, 2016  ▪  Bohdan Butkevych

Serhiy Hunko: "We cannot issue documents to unidentified persons"

Press Officer for the State Migration Service of Ukraine spoke to The Ukrainian Week about foreign refugees, internally displaced persons and their status in Ukraine

Is SMSU in charge of the IDP-related issues?

Under the current law, the Ministry of Social Policy is fully responsible for the registration and social protection of internally displaced persons, not us. SMSU does not issue certificates to IDPs either, all of this is done by social security agencies.

What about the documents? For instance, if a child was born in the occupied territory, does your agency still have to issue the documents?

Such situation is governed by the general rules applying to all citizens of Ukraine, even though there are some specifics. When a child is born, it is registered with the Ministry of Justice, whereupon we issue the respective documents. In general, any person leaving the occupied territory of Crimea may apply to any SMSU unit in Ukraine. As for the occupied territory of Donbas, its residents should apply to any unit in the oblast where they are registered, since passport books are issued, especially for the first time, and new photographs are inserted at the place of their registered domicile. However, if they already have an IDP certificate, they should turn to an SMSU unit in the region where they are registered under the certificate.

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The IDPs keep complaining about bureaucracy and ill-treatment at government agencies, including the SMSU. In your opinion, at which stage do the most problems arise?

We are constantly in contact with the IDPs' NGOs, such as Donbas SOS, Crimea SOS, Vostok SOS, etc. Their representatives are included in our citizen's board. We meet with them and address their issues. Today, the biggest problem is the identification of the persons applying for documents or for their recovery. If a person comes from Crimea or the occupied territory of Donbas, we can't have access to a very important Form No. 1, which is a complete copy of the information from a Ukrainian citizen's passport stored in paper form in the respective SMSU unit. It is a piece of carton of A5 format with all the data, including the photographs taken upon reaching a certain age. Obviously, all these documents remained in the occupied territories, so we currently cannot have access to these materials. We try to identify people based on other documents. For example, international passports (we already have the respective electronic database), driver's licenses or any other documents or databases, even if they were issued by another body. However, in specific cases, which are not many, we cannot identify persons who carry no documents at all. Nowhere in the world, even taking into account the experience of international conflicts, has a solution been found to what to do with such people. The experience of the war in Yugoslavia, when there were very similar problems — paper-based passport records on paper carriers, and territories that did not cooperate with each other to exchange information — is also useless. In their case, people with no documents just had to wait for the cooperation between different territories to resume. Please understand that we cannot issue documents without identifying a person. This is very dangerous even in times of peace, not to mention the times of war. Anyone could take advantage of this: terrorists, spies, or killers.

Talking about the refugees. Under the law, SMSU deals with this issue exclusively. What is the current situation with the refugees, especially the political asylum seekers?

One important point: there is no such thing as a political refugee status in Ukraine, although many people are not aware of this. We simply grant a refugee status, regardless of the reason. In 2002, we joined the UN Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, and in 2011 the Ukrainian legislation was finally harmonized with it. Let me remind you that a refugee is someone who "owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country." 1,000 to 1,500 people apply to SMSU annually to get a refugee status for various reasons, and this dynamic in the recent years has not changed significantly. However, we don't keep separate records of the criteria for seeking asylum. After all, the status is granted on an individual basis, and in many cases, several criteria of the Convention are considered at once. We also have to understand that in many cases, obtaining a refugee status is not necessary to receive the right to live in Ukraine. A person does not need one when he or she has a Ukrainian spouse or relatives in Ukraine, or if his or her grandparents were born in the territory of Ukraine.

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From which countries do refugees come to Ukraine most often? And how many people with this status are in Ukraine today?

Today Ukraine has about 2,500 people recognized as refugees. In 2015, the leaders among the countries of origin of asylum seekers were Afghanistan, followed by Syria, Somalia, Russia and, finally, Iraq. We have to understand that most foreigners do not consider Ukraine as their destination. For them, it's rather a transit point. Also, the refugee status is granted irrespectively of whether a person got to our territory legally or illegally. We have quite a lot of cases of fraud, when people, mainly from the Russian Federation, are taken to Ukraine and said that they are already in the EU.

Describe the procedure according to which your agency grants the applicants a refugee status.

This is a multiple-stage procedure, which takes up to six months in Ukraine. By the way, in many European countries it can take up to 2 years, so we are more or less quick. First of all, persons seeking asylum have to appeal to our regional office. There, they are taken care of by the experts who conduct interviews and study their materials. Next, their cases with recommendations are forwarded to the central SMSU office, where all information is checked again. Then it is submitted to senior management, which makes the final decision.

In percentage terms, does Ukraine take more positive or negative decisions on refugees?

On average, refugee status is granted to 10% of all applicants. Accordingly, in 90% of the cases, SMSU denies such status. Plus, let's not forget that we have one more tolerant status, that of a so-called person in need of extra protection. This is not exactly a refugee status, and it is not covered by the UN Convention, but it is similar. Let me provide an example. For instance, Syrian citizens in Ukraine are mostly granted this status. Why? Because, even though a civil war is going on in their country, there is no direct evidence that something is threatening these people according to the UN Convention criteria. Generally, some political forces aiming to undermine the situation in the country like to spread terrible rumors about Syria. Historically, however, Ukraine had close relations with this country since the Soviet times, when we had many Syrian students. Most Syrians who come here are such former students. They mostly come from wealthy families, know the language, have higher education and therefore can be useful for the Ukrainian society. Many of them also have mixed marriages, that is, are married to Ukrainians. What I'm trying to say is that Syrians who come to Ukraine know very well where they are going and what for. These people consider Ukraine as their country of destination. Very often, we do not grant them the refugee status, because they can obtain an immigrant status without it. Finally, Ukraine, as you understand, is not on the main geographical route along which Syrians get to the EU.

What are the rights of a person granted a refugee status?

First of all, it is the right to permanent residence. Besides, it provides all the rights and duties of a citizen of Ukraine, except for special rights: the right to vote and to hold public office. Refugees don't get any other benefits in Ukraine. We are not the EU that can also afford social assistance to refugees. However, we understand that there are certain categories of refugees in need of social assistance at least at the stage of integrating into the society. This is why today we operate two refugee centers that can host 320 asylum seekers: one in Odesa and one in Mukacheve, Zakarpattia Oblast. These are just dormitories, which a person may leave anytime. We also sent only those who ask for it there. Those centers provide temporary accommodation for the most vulnerable categories: large families, mothers with children, children without parents and victims of torture who need adaptation. During their stay at the centers, the state provides them with food packages so that they can cook for themselves. We also take measures to integrate them in the society, and extensively cooperate with the relevant UN agencies, NGOs, and charitable funds. Such measures include language courses, psychological training, job fairs, etc. By the way, going back to the subject of the Syrians, today we have 12 citizens of Syria (six adults and six children) living in our centers, the rest are from other countries.

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Some are spreading rumors about some secret arrangements between Ukraine and the EU on the transfer of the refugees from Europe to our territory. Is it true?

This is completely untrue, there have never been even talks about it. First of all, it is legally impossible, because a refugee status cannot be granted to a person who arrived in our territory from a third safe country. That is, asylum should be sought in the first safe country to which a refugee arrives. Secondly, such persons would not be able to cross our border with the EU, since they have no reason to enter.

Are there any benefits to foreigners who fought as part of the Armed Forces or the National Guard of Ukraine at the front line and want to obtain Ukrainian citizenship?

One of the reasons for obtaining Ukrainian citizenship is state interest, that is, services provided to our country. Such people can use a simplified procedure, which requires fewer documents and takes less time. The only thing that is required is an application from an executive authority to the SMSU to confirm that a person has actually done something in the state interest. In this case, we are talking about a direct application by either the Defense Minister or the Interior Minister. In fact, the SMSU can only endorse such application and forward it to the Commission on Citizenship under the President of Ukraine, which takes the final decision signed by the President. In the last year, there were six such cases. If there is no application from the Defense Ministry or the MIA, the person may just follow the usual procedure. There is one more point. The legislation has recently been amended to allow foreigners to serve under contract in the Armed Forces and the National Guard of Ukraine. Military service cards obtained by such foreigners are proof of their legal residence in Ukraine. Besides, three years of the military service under contract are now the sufficient grounds to apply for citizenship. So far, there have been no precedents of the application of this law, since it was adopted only recently. Those who were not formally registered while serving at the front line, unfortunately, are not covered by this law.

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