What happened to non-Ukrainian refugees from Ukraine?

Long before it itself became a war zone, Ukraine was both a country of transit and destination for people fleeing conflict and persecution elsewhere. Today, these people – from Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and elsewhere – have found themselves among the millions of people displaced within the country and across borders. .

New research reveals that as they seek safety in the EU, these refugees struggle to access the basic protections – status, documents, information and services – to which they are entitled.

Some 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers were registered in Ukraine in 2021. This population may seem tiny in the context of the millions of displaced people.

Yet, having worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Ukraine for over 21 years, we know that non-Ukrainians are one of the most at-risk groups in this crisis. They often lack documents or even nationality and have no safe country of origin to return to.

Due to shortcomings in the Ukrainian asylum system, even before the invasion, only around 100 people received protection in the country each year.

In 2021, Right to Protection provided legal assistance to some 1,500 asylum seekers and refugees in Ukraine. Last year, we interviewed 300 of these people who had come to the EU from Ukraine, to better understand their experiences.

The EU’s Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), triggered just days after Russia’s large-scale invasion, has provided legal protection for some 4.9 million people fleeing war. Yet nearly four in ten non-Ukrainian asylum seekers and refugees we interviewed had not received temporary protection.

Unless they have international protection in Ukraine, third-country nationals are only eligible for temporary protection if they held permanent residence in Ukraine. This de facto excludes asylum seekers and many other vulnerable undocumented third-country nationals, including most of the 80,000 stateless people who lived in Ukraine when the war started.

Refugees with documents in Ukraine are eligible for protection under EU TPD, but EU member states may not recognize or understand their Ukrainian documents. 38% of the people we surveyed experienced delays and obstacles in obtaining temporary protection.

Five months vs same day

Some have waited up to five months for temporary protection, while the EU Asylum Agency (EUAA) reports that Ukrainian nationals receive documents the same day in at least 17 countries.

Whether or not they are eligible for temporary protection, all third-country nationals arriving from Ukraine have the right to apply for asylum.

Yet only a quarter of respondents in our study knew where to find legal information and assistance. This makes them particularly vulnerable as they try to navigate a legal maze of asylum policies at European and national levels.

All EU Member States have launched mass information campaigns on temporary protection. However, web pages in Ukrainian and Russian do little to help Syrians and Afghans, the two main nationalities surveyed in our research.

Without adequate access to information or protection procedures, more than 10% of the people we spoke to do not hold any identity or travel documents. They must remain in a legal limbo, unable to return to Ukraine to see or collect family members, or to access basic services in the EU.

While the EU temporary protection regime has been a lifeline for millions of people, it risks leaving these vulnerable populations behind. Yet it is not too late for the EU and Member States to act to protect all people fleeing Ukraine, whether or not they have Ukrainian nationality.

EU Member States should use their discretion under the TPD to extend temporary protection to asylum seekers and stateless persons.

The European Commission stresses that this would be to the advantage of States, by avoiding overloading asylum systems.

Even if the political will is lacking at EU level to provide broader protection (which would require changing the Council decision implementing the TPD), the EU can act in other ways to ensure that – Ukrainians are treated fairly.

For example, by updating guidelines on the implementation of PDT, exposing good and bad practices through the Solidarity Platform, collecting data on non-Ukrainians fleeing Ukraine and providing quality information accessible to people on the margins of PDT. Not only would these efforts promote harmonized practice across the EU, but they would also reinforce the EU’s fundamental commitment to non-discrimination.

Ultimately, history will judge us on how we have welcomed the most vulnerable, including asylum seekers, refugees and stateless people.


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