Ukrainians: rejected at home but Poland says they are not refugees

Thursday 30, April 2015

UNHCR/R. Kostrzynski
Oleg is an asylum-seeker from Ukraine. He fled Mariupol with his wife and four daughters in October 2014 when the separatists started shelling the city. He sought safety in the western part of Ukraine, but he could not get the necessary medicines for his wife with mental problems. Oleg and his family are now accommodated at a reception centre in Bezwola, Poland.

BIAŁA PODLASKA, Poland, April 28 (UNHCR) – Siarhiy’s back and legs hurt so much he has to cling to his heavy wooden crutches for relief even when sitting. But the pain you can’t see is worse – the trauma of being treated as a foreigner in his own country virtually overnight.

“It all happened so suddenly,” the 40-year-old Ukrainian says.  “One day my landlady, who is from Petersburg, came to my flat, and said it was no town for Ukrainians.” She gave him 24 hours to leave.

That set him on a 10-day, 1,500-kilometer solo drive to this reception centre in eastern Poland, where he became one of nearly 3,000 Ukrainians who have applied for refugee status since January 2014. Not one has received it.

All Siarhiy knew was that he needed to save his life. When the war that had smoldered in Ukraine since March 2014 reached his eastern town last September, the disabled taxi driver suddenly felt unsafe anywhere. He says anti-Ukrainian sentiment flared when separatists entered his small town.

“I hoped it would not affect me. I was just a regular citizen, never involved in politics, a simple taxi driver barely able to walk on my own,” he says, gesturing at his legs and crutches.  “I was wrong.”

That’s when his landlady gave him the ultimatum. Reluctantly, he left by himself; his parents refused to come.

His hometown of Shakhtarsk is small, but lies close to Donetsk, epicenter of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, and also has been fought over by Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces.

Leaving his parents behind was the toughest choice of his life, but he got into his car and started driving, hoping to find a safe haven in the west of his own huge country. However, the further he drove, the more he realized he was not welcome there, possibly because the country is already struggling with 1.2 million people displaced by fighting in Crimea and Donbas over the last 13 months.

He says he was rebuffed at every turn: “In Lviv, when a local official told me to go back where I came from, I finally understood that I would not find a peaceful place to live in Ukraine.” He drove into Poland and asked for asylum, not realizing he could be entering years of limbo highly unlikely to end in refugee status.

The Polish government is reluctant to grant refugee status to Ukrainians the way it does to Syrians for example. The government argues that only a small part of Ukraine is affected by conflict, so Ukrainians could seek protection in other parts of the country controlled by the central government.

The UN refugee agency takes quite a different view.  “UNHCR believes that refugee status must be determined by examining the facts of an individual case,” says Anna-Carin Öst, UNHCR representative in Poland. “Relative safety of a person is only one factor that would need to be taken into account in the refugee status determination procedure.

“Other factors might be the safety and security situation in the proposed area of relocation, respect for human rights in that area, access to critical medical assistance and the possibilities for economic survival,” she added. “This is an issue we continue to discuss with the Polish government because we feel they still need to look beyond the issue of physical safety.”

Life in Ukraine turned even more bitter for Oleg, a 40-year-old bricklayer, who used to serve displaced people and now is one himself. His hometown is the seaport of Mariupol, which was a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing other parts of the country until it too came under shelling from separatists.

“Before September, my community used to help the internally displaced people from Donetsk and Lugansk,” two heavily-contested cities. “We served at least a thousand of them, arranged food and shelter. I never thought that soon I would be in exactly the same situation.”

When he needed help for himself, his wife and four daughters, Oleg says he was unable to find it within Ukraine’s borders. His children couldn’t go to school. Crucially, they’d left his wife’s medical certificate at home when they fled and no other Ukrainian doctor would prescribe medicine she desperately needed.

Since then, he’s received news that convinces him he’s better off staying at the reception centre in Bezwola, also in eastern Poland, not far from the borders with Belarus and Ukraine.

“I would like to go back to Mariupol, where I spent my entire life, but I heard my house has been destroyed,” Oleg says. “For the time being, we are safe here and if things go well, I will be able to find a job to provide for the family.”

 By Rafał Kostrzyński in Biała Podlaska and Bezwola, Poland


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