KYIV, Ukraine—Ukraine is a gateway to Europe for refugees from Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Africa. Refugees in the Eastern European country often find it difficult, however, to get refugee status and to establish a new life.
In 2012, 1,860 people applied for refugee status, but only 63 got it. A 2011 refugee law meant to expand protection still only extended temporary protection to 89 people in 2012.
As of Jan. 1, 2013, there were 2,500 recognized refugees in Ukraine and 5,875 stateless people, according to statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Most refugees are from Afghanistan.
Karima Mohammad is an Afghani refugee who is the head of the United Nations Refugee Integration Center in Kyiv. She said the Ukraine Migration Service does not grant status to applicants from countries Ukraine is friendly with, because it would mean admitting those countries’ governments are guilty of persecuting their people.
The documentary “New Walls: Women Refugees in Eastern Europe,” produced by Al Jazeera and narrated by UNHCR Goodwill Ambassador Barbara Hendriks, also found that applicants from countries friendly with Ukraine were usually denied asylum.
“They ask which country the person is from, and if it doesn’t fit, they refuse,” Mohammad said. She explained that refugees she works with are often unable to find jobs to sustain themselves.
As with many immigrants around the world, refugees in Ukraine find their foreign diplomas often do not give them the needed credentials in their new homeland. Often employers are uncertain of the law and reject applicants without realizing refugee certificates give them the same rights to work as citizens, Mohammad said.
“We had a war in Abkhazia, and I came to Ukraine in 2005 with my son,” said Nana, one of the refugees at the integration center who preferred to only give her first name. “I can’t get employment in my profession—I’m a dentist—my documents were burned there [in Abkhazia]. Our relatives host us here.” They came right after the war started. “We thought things would get better and we would return, but it did not happen.”
Abkhazia, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, battled for its independence from Georgia after the collapse of the USSR. It remains a disputed region.
Mohammad explained that many of the refugees at her center are well educated, including engineers and doctors. Most of the men end up working at local markets, however, and the women make handicrafts.
Half of their income is usually spent on accommodation and market fees. They live in close quarters to save money—it is common for two or three tenants to share a bedroom, or for two families to live in a two-bedroom apartment.
Documentation does not help their situation, Mohammad said.
“People get Ukrainian passports, but it gives no benefits—the only one is that you have documents,” Mohammad said. She scoffed at a one-time financial aid—refugees are given 17 hryvna (US$2.09,) which most do not bother with, as it usually costs more for the public transportation to pick it up than the payment.
The documents do, however, prevent the asylum seekers from being deported to their country of origin where some of them could face great danger.
Another issue faced by the refugees in Ukraine is xenophobia—though Karima reports the attitude of Ukrainians toward foreigners has improved much in the past two decades.
Representatives of Ukrainian nongovernmental organizations, state representatives, and migrant community representatives gathered in Kyiv on Sept. 28, 2012, to discuss racism and xenophobia in the country.
They found problems still exist with hate speech in the media and a lack of official reporting on hate crimes. Prejudice against Africans, Muslims, and Roma (also known as Gypsies) is particularly prevalent.
UNHCR Deputy Regional Representative for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine Vanno Noupech, is quoted on the International Organization for Migration website as having said at the conference: “What often begins as a softer expression of dislike and intolerance can develop into institutionalized discrimination, hatred, verbal and physical abuse, hate crimes which constitute a serious threat to the overall protection environment and hamper integration of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants into the host society.”
Prejudice is more common in the countryside. Alexander from Gorodok, a small town in Western Ukraine, told The Epoch Times he worries about foreign diseases being let into the country with refugees.
“Or, we see in the news that a citizen of some country killed a woman,” Alexander said. “I am against granting asylum in Ukraine—there are more advanced countries of Europe, let them open shelters [for refugees].”
Volodymyr of Dnipropetrovsk in Central Ukraine said: “I think if we talk about political brawlers, then my attitude is negative. But, if people are driven by special conditions (war, famine, etcetera) and they respect the law, then they’re welcome.”