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Ukraine: Asylum Policy Shuts Out Many

Ukraine has offered asylum to several thousand refugees from war-torn nations. But, as Lily Hyde reports for RFE/RL, its refugee laws still deny sanctuary to thousands of genuine asylum seekers, and those who have been accepted live in constant fear of police aggression.

Kyiv, 12 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Elkana Gale gets stopped several times a day by the police. He says they have strip-searched, insulted, and beaten him, and even threatened his life.

Gale is a refugee from torture in Sudan. Yet these violations of his human rights happened in Ukraine, where Gale sought asylum three years ago. On paper, Ukraine granted him sanctuary. In reality, he, along with many other refugees seeking shelter here, say they have exchanged one form of torture and repression for another. Gale says:

"I came here by mistake, I had to run away from the war. I just had to go to where it was possible. I wanted a Christian nation so that I could have a rest. I found myself in Ukraine. I didn't know anything about Ukraine. But when I came here, I found out that though there is war at home, home is the best."

Ukraine's refugee policy is one of the most liberal of former Soviet countries -- many of which have no refugee legislation at all. Ukraine has accepted more than 3,500 refugees since 1996, while Russia has accepted just 400.

But Ukraine has not signed the 1951 UN convention that lays down guidelines for asylum refugee policy worldwide. And because of inadequate legislation, Ukraine turns down large numbers of UN-recognized asylum seekers. Those it does accept are not getting adequate protection.

Refugee status is granted by Ukrainian local immigration authorities and has to be renewed every three months. Because of this three-month limit, even refugees who have been here for years are still seen as temporary residents. The authorities do not provide them with housing or financial aid. They are not allowed to legally work. They are treated as unwelcome visitors, resented by locals, and constantly harassed by law-enforcement agencies.

According to a UN survey in Ukraine last year, more than half of refugees from Afghanistan, African nations and former Soviet states are regularly treated rudely and disrespectfully by the police. A significant number said the militia had extorted money or confiscated possessions from them.

Mykola Yarina is head of the police department for migrants in the Interior Ministry. He told RFE/RL that police have to stop foreigners because they may be illegal migrants, but that refugees are treated more leniently.

"There have been questions over the police illegally detaining foreigners. But it's different for refugees. The police are given special instructions. Every policeman, from the top downwards, has orders how to behave with foreigners, whether refugees or illegal migrants, and they have to check their identification. At regular meetings, we provide militia heads with information about their rude attitude to foreigners and we provide them with written rules of behavior."

But many people classified under Ukrainian law as illegal migrants are, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, genuine asylum seekers. Yet because they came by way of a third country -- usually Russia -- Ukraine does not accept their applications and does not even grant temporary living status. But it also makes no provision for them to go elsewhere, not even back to Russia, with which Ukraine has no re-admission agreement.

Pierfrancesco Natta of the UNHCR's office in Kyiv told RFE/RL:

"This is creating the problem of a limbo situation for many people. They are not able to return to the country where they were transiting, for example Russia, and basically are forced to stay in the country illegally and basically are under the continuous harassment from the police forces. That basically they have to request legal resident permits that these people cannot provide. So this is the biggest nightmare for many asylum seekers that are coming to this country."

Formerly, asylum seekers could appeal to a government committee for migration if they were turned down by local migration authorities. But that committee was dissolved as part of government streamlining earlier this year -- a move that would seem to indicate that refugees are not a high priority for the Ukrainian government.

Yarina and other Ukrainian authorities say Ukraine cannot accept more refugees or offer them better conditions because of the country's dire economic situation. But the UNHCR's Natta says the rest of the world cannot help financially until Ukraine signs the UN convention on refugees.

"So basically they (Ukraine) are a little bit in a pariah situation. Even if they have recognized 3,500 people, then basically no one would consider that as a real figure. So the authorities are always expressing the willingness to accede to the convention, [but] unfortunately this never came true, and we are feeling that the authorities are reluctant due to the fear of additional financial obligation towards a category that is not really considered as a priority."

The result, says Natta, is bad for the asylum seekers. Between October and December last year, the number of registered refugees in Ukraine fell from 3,560 to 2,697: Nearly a thousand, tired of the impossible life in Ukraine, crossed the border into Western Europe.

The UNHCR wants Ukraine to improve its refugee policy so that asylum seekers choose to remain here. It says Western countries would help Ukraine shoulder the economic burden if it meant saving the West from more asylum seekers.