An unwelcome host

6 June 2016, 13:00

When you read, hear or watch media reports on migrants and asylum seekers in Ukraine, you have an impression of being in two worlds at the same time, that seem to be mirror images of one another. In one, migrants and refugees flow to Ukraine quietly to eventually outnumber Ukraine’s population, impose their values, infect with their exotic diseases, and increase crime rates. This world exists on flickering TV screens, some websites, and in the speeches of politicians, professional xenophobes and those whom they managed to confuse. In this world, Ukraine is a destination for strangers trying by hook or by crook to get into its territory and gain a foothold here as refugees, economic migrants, or otherwise. This picture is best described by the title of a program once aired by a popular TV channel: "They come like flies to honey."

There is also another world that exists in statistics, analytical surveys, research, conclusions based on monitoring visits and human rights reports. In this world, Ukraine is a country of origin, rather than a destination for migrants. From Ukraine, people go for temporary labor migration to Russia (even today), or for a longer periods westward. The number of Ukrainian migrant workers is not small, especially compared to the number of migrants in Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens are requesting refugee status or simply fleeing the war not only inside Ukraine, but also abroad. The number of these people is growing and is tentatively estimated at one million, which is far more than the number of those ever granted the official refugee status in Ukraine. The lives of both foreigners and a huge number of Ukrainian internal migrants are to this day complicated by the Soviet concept of propyska, or “registered domicile”. It often becomes an obstacle to obtaining a legal status or even citizenship of Ukraine. Meanwhile, getting a refugee status here is uncertain and unlikely, like winning a lottery. Compared to Ukraine’s system, the ones in the EU seem logical and regulated.

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Between these two mirror worlds, one is more familiar to the general public and dictates a simple agenda: close the doors, defend ourselves, and restrict or stop immigration to Ukraine altogether, as well as the attempts of foreigners to find asylum from persecution or war in Ukraine. The second worlds covers a more varied and specific range of issues: develop strategies and make decisions that would guarantee the rights of Ukrainian migrant workers and our fellow citizens staying abroad for other reasons; replace the propyska regime with a modern and flexible registration system; change legislation in order to allow foreign nationals to work in Ukraine for the country's benefit without red tape obstacles; and, finally, provide adequate support to IDPs and improve the dysfunctional protection system for refugees and asylum seekers in Ukraine.

When the concept of the former prevails, it poses a threat to the second echelon of issues, like it does in any environment where xenophobia, fear and emotions hinder the development and implementation of strategies based on a rational analysis. However, there is still some progress in Ukraine. The proof is the Sixth Progress Report on the Implementation by Ukraine of the Action Plan on Visa Liberalisation (VLAP). Published in December 2015, it was the last of the six reports and provided grounds to assert that Ukraine has met all VLAP requirements, which means that the requirements of VLAP’s Block 2 (integrated border management, migration management, asylum) have also been met. Even if such conclusion is partly political, the report still lists specific solutions which Ukraine has implemented. These cannot be overlooked.  

The first of these reports dates back to 2011, and the third one was published in November 2013. At that time, biometric IDs were the fiefdom of corrupt politicians and businessmen, the concept of “fighting terrorism” was very different from what it entails today, and “border management” did not entail a large part of Ukraine’s border that the country does not control today, nor illegal discriminatory restrictions on other sections of the border introduced today. A lot has changed since, and new challenges are the the most obvious in the area of migration and asylum.

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There have been no major legislative changes in this field, with the exception of some government regulations and amendments to laws. This means that the process of granting asylum or residence permits is governed by the same laws as before the current war. This alone means that they do not meet the demands of the situation today.

For example, the main reason for seeking asylum in Ukraine in 2013 for foreign citizens of FSU countries was just to get a legal safeguard against immediate deportation. On the whole, 1,310 people asked for a refugee status or other protection that year, and 216 people were granted it.

In 2015, Ukraine still had the image of a young post-revolutionary democratic republic, almost the embodiment of all aspirations of democratic activists from all over the former Soviet Union. Despite the fact that the war and occupation make Ukraine not too attractive a destination, the total of 1,443 persons asked for asylum in Ukraine in 2015, and 167 were granted it.

Those who were denied protection included activists from Russia. Some of them were persecuted for opposing Putin's regime, others for demanding democracy and fair elections in Russia. Some took part in Maidan protests, and almost all of them protested against Russian aggression in Ukraine. No wonder that they hoped – in vain – to receive some solidarity and from our country. Their disappointment was especially bitter when Ukrainian state bodies started using arguments like “it is impossible that Russia prosecutes for political views: it is a democratic state governed by the rule of law” to justify their negative decisions on asylum seekers. Some Russians were eventually granted shelter, which would have been impossible in the times of ex-president Viktor Yanukovych. Yet, in many aspects the old system remains unchanged. This system is appropriate for an authoritarian regime that is reluctant to give refuge to active dissenters and damage its relations with authoritarian neighbors, but not for a democratic country that is taking an active stand on civil rights and liberties and meeting its international commitments.

To reform the system, a number of steps need to be taken: from immediate solutions, such as changing the unrealistically short terms for filing asylum applications or for appealing denials, and simplifying unnecessary bureaucratic procedure for obtaining work permits, to the actual and effective changes, such as ensuring the basic conditions for the newly arrived, providing guarantees to those coming to the border to ask for asylum, and establishing an independent body for appeals against denials.

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Activists who work in the refugee rights field aimed at accomplishing all these goals by February 2014. So far, however, even the immediate goals are achieved in the one step forward and two steps backward pace.

The situation is worse for Russian and Belarusian citizens who arrived to defend Ukraine at the frontline. They face persecution at home but aren’t allowed to stay in Ukraine after their short-term residence permit expires. Those of them who have not committed any criminal offenses either at home or in Ukraine hoped to get at least a refugee status or a temporary residence permit, if not Ukrainian citizenship. But Ukrainian laws, as mentioned above, date back to the pre-war times and do not provide any grounds for granting permit or citizenship to such people, while the State Migration Service of Ukraine denies them a refugee status. Despite the numerous promises to resolve the situation given by politicians, including President Poroshenko, Ukraine still shows its ingratitude to those who fought for it, let alone refugees from more distant lands. Human rights organizations are again recording more frequent denials of asylum to Syrian refugees, even though this is unacceptable in view of the current situation in Syria, according to the Right to Protection Charitable Foundation, an NGO focused on legal and other assistance to IDPs and refugees.

Some justify this inadequate protection of refugees in Ukraine by the need to support our own IDPs from Crimea and the East. However, this support so far is limited to cutting their social benefits, restricting their rights and having no strategy of integrating them in local communities.

Finally, in the foreseeable future, Ukraine would not have to defend itself against the hypothetical migrant invasion. Unfortunately, it is not on the agenda. Unfortunately, because the country involved in an armed conflict, partly occupied and undergoing an economic crisis, with no decent paying jobs or social welfare system, with the few available social services being cut, and with no independent judiciary system, is an unattractive destination. When it becomes attractive, it would mean that things for Ukraine have finally taken a turn for the better.

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