Ukraine – no hospitable place for refugees
An interview given by Maxim Butkevych, coordinator of “Without borders” on the eve of World Refugee Day
– Ukraine has signed the main conventions protecting the rights of refugees. What do they commit us to do?
Speaking from a legal point of view, Ukraine has signed a number of conventions. These are the Convention on the Status of a Refugee, the European Convention on Human Rights, and the UN Convention against Torture. Thus we have taken on certain commitments according to which our country, for example, does not have the right to extradite a person to a country where he will probably be tortured, and could be killed.
However in our case the mandatory nature of the laws is compensated by it not being compulsory to enforce them. Violations regularly occur. Ukraine has handed over refugees (strictly speaking, asylum seekers – translator] to Chechnya, Uzbekistan, Sri Lanka. The latest big scandal was in December last year. Uzbek Abdumalik Bakaev came to Ukraine and applied for asylum on the grounds that he could be subjected to repression in his country. He went to the official bodies and made an application which gave the address he was living at in Ukraine. He was told to return in a couple of days, however the next day he was detained by the police, and it took enormous effort to get him back (cf. http://www.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1228763320 )
Is it possible to say that Ukraine extradites everybody they’re asked to?
No, far from all. Where the case becomes public and human rights organizations intervene, as a rule, the extraditions don’t happen.
Is there a high chance of being granted asylum in Ukraine?
About one percent of asylum seekers receive refugee status. However it is important to understand that for refugees Ukraine remains first of all a transit country, and not their destination. There are, of course, people who choose Ukraine as their home, settle here, learn the language, often in fact, Ukrainian, set down roots. However these are the isolated few. After all people seeking asylum here don’t have any social assistance while they’re applying.
On the other hand, and unlike many other countries, asylum seekers in Ukraine have the right to work
That’s true, however for getting a job you need a special work permit, and asylum seekers don’t usually have it. In practice, therefore, it’s all like this: when the police see an Uzbek selling shaurma, they take him to the police station. If they need money for some reason that evening they say “Come on, man, here’s your phone, ring your friends, get them to bring 200 UAH for you (around 30 USD, and a lot – translator). If they need statistics about how well they fight immigrants, they hold him till the court, and then read him the law about a work permit which an asylum seeker of course doesn’t have. As a result he ends up with a three hundred UA fine. In a while it all happens again: the police need money, and know who hasn’t got a passport. It can go on for months. For example, one Uzbek was detained four times in a month and a half.
Which is the largest group of refugees in Ukraine?
The largest group is people from Afghanistan. They began coming here in large numbers after the full of the Najibullah regime. In 1993 the first Law on Refugees was passed in Ukraine which had a lot of unjust things. For example, a person couldn’t apply for refugee status if he’d been here more than three days. And this was at a time when the people transporting them could drop them anywhere, and it could be a week and a half before they found out.
That was also the case with Somalis. They came to the migration office and were told: go back. however Afghanis did actually get refugee status, after all they couldn’t go back. Now people from that country get refugee status quite often. However it’s not those Afghanis who came earlier, but their children who’ve reached 18.
Uzbeks quite often come here, especially since the events in Andijon. They had great hopes for Ukraine and there was even a tent on Maidan [Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Independence Square] during the Orange Revolution. Members of the Uzbek opposition brought cotton bushes from their country hoping to develop our cotton industry. It soon became clear how naïve their ideas were.
What about Chechens?
From 2002-2003 Chechens haven’t been granted refugee status at all. They don’t even apply now. There was politics in this, of course, but also subjective reasons. A person comes to the migration office, for example, and says: “I’m a refugee, I fled, my city got bombed”. – “OK”, they’re told, “But were you persecuted?” “The person explains that the village was bombed, talks about how Russian Federal Forces or the fighters murdered his mother, raped his sister. The migration officer will say that all that’s terrible, war is very bad, but that the person himself was not persecuted as such, and he doesn’t fall under the Convention. Some countries have status of war refugee, however Ukraine does not.
Why does Ukraine grant so few people refugee status? Is it officials who drag it out deliberately?
No, more likely the efficiency of the system itself. Constant reforms to the Committee on Nationalities and Religion are an obstacle – it’s already undergone restructuring nearly eight times since it was formed. Each time its work stops for around six months while the personnel understand what’s in their jurisdiction and what’s not. Secondly, the regional services which don’t have the people or enough money work badly. For example, in the Transcarpathian region in the migration office there are maybe two, or three officials. In Chernihiv – two. At the moment they’ve created a centre for foreign nationals illegally in the country where many apply for asylum. If before there were dozens a year, there are now dozens of applications a month.
Where do they come from to Ukraine or via Ukraine?
Mainly from Pakistan, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Somali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Armenians, Georgians, Chinese – followers of Falun Dafa. There are also refugees from Russian however in the main not from Chechnya, but opposition “natsboly” [National Bolshevik Party, led by Limonov].
The “natsboly” seek protection here, yet behave in a disloyal way to the Ukrainian State, to the President
There’s an interesting point. On the one hand, If you’ve been taken in, be good, and don’t cause trouble. On the other, you haven’t had the public denials of the existence of the Ukrainian State from those who are in the country for a long time, and from refugees never. As far as their attitude to the President, refugees have the same rights as Ukrainian citizens, beside the right to elect or be elected, including the right to express their views.
How do your average citizens view refugees?
Fortunately, aside from representatives of rightwing organizations like VO “Svoboda”, “Patriot of Ukraine”, refugees seldom encounter demonstrations of animosity. It does, admittedly, happen that the subject is exploited by officials, but they often mix the terms refugee, immigrant, illegal immigrant and foreign offender.
You often hear statements from politicians that refugees are a threat to Ukraine, take jobs away from Ukrainians
There were refugees long before any conventions. An old example: Christ was a refugee, as was Muhammed, and Einstein. They are people who bring and happily share their experience to countries, even if they are uncomfortable to live in. People who make such journeys are those who are fit for exhausting travel. They are fairly young, bright, energetic, in a word, healthy enough people. Most often they don’t take jobs away form others. They work as loaders, serve in cafes, etc. A refugee friend of mine is one of the best chefs of eastern cuisine in the former Soviet Union. Usually these people are ready to carry out the most dirty work. Refugees, therefore, in no way threaten Ukraine, but on the contrary it is Ukraine which is often for them dangerous since they become victims of interference from the State and the far right. Recently there has been a clear increase in the number of attacks. In the first half of 2008 there were more than in all of 2007. This must be of concern, and in our last appeal we asked the Ukrainian authorities to either withdraw Ukraine’s signature from international documents or clearly observe them.
Very slightly abridged from the original at:
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