We quickly forgot how many iconic Ukrainian figures of 20th century were refugees

Maksym Butkevych

The edited for publishing text of speech, delivered at the discussion "Migrant Crisis or Crisis of Solidarity?" held within the framework of the 13th Docudays UA International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival in Kyiv on March 27, 2016.

Since last year, we have been witnessing a moving unanimity of the Ukrainian and Russian media in covering the arrival of the refugees in the EU. It seems sometimes that we are dealing with a transboundary migrantphobic propaganda, which is spread both in Russia and Ukraine.

We have seen those strange texts about some smelly migrants who are seizing the trains heading from Budapest to Vienna, about how it is scary to go with them, how they leave rubbish, and how they awfully speak Arabic, and how they only pretend they are refugees while actually they are just looking for a more comfortable life. And that is why they have passed this dangerous path, and many of them died. It is not said they just need shelter.

We have several myths about refugees in Europe and Ukraine. One of the statements that can be heard quite often recently: "Why are they seeking asylum elsewhere? Let them take up arms and improve the situation in their country. We had Maidan, for example. We did not flee, and they run away." It is strange to hear.

Often these are the people who tried to strengthen the democratic reforms in their country. Syria did not have the situation we had in Maidan, when people were killed at the end of the protest. The Syrian Government killed people massively from the very beginning. Later, it turned into the war full of crimes and human rights abuses and Assad was joined by the Kremlin regime.

This is referred to the Russian armed forces, which launched airstrikes, including on civilian targets of the Syrian democratic opposition. And the people, who fled from the bombs of the Kremlin, and then came to Europe or Ukraine, suddenly found that the Ukrainian opponents of the Putin regime showed no solidarity with them. This, particularly, refers to the situation around the temporary accommodation centers in Yahotyn, Kyiv region, in recent weeks.

In 2002, Ukraine signed and ratified the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol thereto. That is, the country became a full party to the international refugee system. The appropriate law on refugees and persons in need of additional or temporary protection has been elaborated in Ukraine. There is a central executive body, the State Migration Service, which is responsible for granting the refugee status.

Our Social Action Centre organization made rather radical statements. Prior to 2013, we said that the system did not actually exist, that it was on paper, but not in reality as providing of protection was extremely selective. The decision as to whom a refugee status should be granted was made often not transparently. Moreover, sometimes people, who were clearly in need of Ukraine’s protection, were not only denied this protection but also tried to be deported to the countries which they had fled from.

There were the entire groups of people who had no chance to get asylum in Ukraine. First of all, there were the citizens of Uzbekistan, Russia, Belarus. After the Maidan protests, the migration service representatives told us, the activists, those were purely politically motivated refusals.

We believed then that those offenses should be properly investigated after the fall of Yanukovych regime. That should be done not just to punish someone but to guarantee that would not happen again in the future. Unfortunately, the investigation failed.

 

Refugees from Syria in Hungary

Compared to our western neighbors, the number of people applying for asylum in Ukraine is minimal. This is an average of 1,000-1,500 applications for refugee status a year. Of these, an average of 5%-10% applications was granted.

In other words, only 5-7 people out of 100 people, who asked for asylum, had a chance to get it. The rest were denied for political reasons or for reasons sometimes obscure for us, obviously, because of the incompetence or because of the outright prejudice sometimes.

Since 2014, the situation has changed, but not systematically. In early March 2014, after the peaceful "occupation" of the State Migration Service premises and securing of the public documents, the Migration Service officials met with representatives of the non-governmental organizations and initiatives that help refugees. A rather radical reform of the asylum system was discussed then.

It was proposed that people could appeal against the denial of refugee status with an independent body involving the public. This should be done to make the procedures for granting refugee status more regulated and transparent.

An adequate, independent and transparent audit of the State Migration Service expenditures was also discussed, as the reports on corruption in the Service came often. However, none of that was done.

We see that the situation is somewhat different now. People now get a refugee status or additional protection more often. However, this change is not systematic. Sometimes we do not understand why, for example, additional protection instead of the refugee status is given. These two legal statuses are similar, but the additional protection causes more problems, the technical aspects of the document term duration, the problems of reunification of families, and so on.

The number of the Russian citizens who applied for the asylum in 2014 was bigger than that over two previous years. This was a period of certain sentimentalism for the Russian refugees whom we communicate with. People believed that they arrived in a post-revolutionary democratic Ukraine at war with the Putin's authoritarian regime. The Putin’s opponents wanted to help Ukraine and believed they would be welcomed here.

However, it became clear that the situation was exactly the opposite. Some people, who came to Ukraine happily (sometimes having the chance to go to other countries, but they deliberately left for Ukraine to assist in fight with the Kremlin), realized that was a mistake. So now we have a series of cases of Russian refugees who were denied protection. Some of these denials are quite absurd. Not to mention the fact that in late 2014 - early 2015 we came across the migration service representatives in the regions who publicly stated in the court that the political activists could not be harassed in Russia because Russia was a democratic and rule-of-law state.

In our view, the present-day situation is similar to that in 2013. The asylum system reform has not been conducted. However, we welcome even those slow changes which happen.

Do you know what the most surprising fact is? The far right representatives of the political spectrum do not just deny solidarity with the refugees, they resort to powerful migrantphobic information campaigns. It has no logic.

Ukrainians were refugees in many countries in the history of the 20th century. Many iconic figures of the Ukrainian culture, politics and history were refugees. Let’s recall any statesman of the civil war period. All of them, starting from Petliura and Makhno and ending with Dmytro Dontsov, were political exiles or refugees. Dontsov had the so-called "Nansen passport" - the internationally recognized refugee travel documents. However, his self-proclaimed spiritual heirs do not remember or do not want to remember this fact.

Few people remember that Ukrainian poetess Olena Teliha was a refugee in Czechoslovakia, as well as her parents. Some think this fact should not be mentioned today. The same refers to writers Bahriany, Lysiak-Rudnytsky and a number of other important personalities of Ukrainian history and culture.

Taking advantage of the cultural and intellectual heritage, which we have now because some country once gave shelter for the Ukrainian activists scattered all over the world, we try not to associate this with the fact that we are now able to shelter people from other countries. Perhaps, we can play an important role in their present and future. Short memory is a feature not worthy of respect. It is a flaw. Besides law, humanitarian, ethical reasons, we should try just not to be ungrateful. We do not succeed in this so far.

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