Citizens of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus live in fear of deportation
Russian and Belarusian citizens in Ukraine live in fear of deportation as the country steps up an overzealous campaign to rid itself of what it claims are collaborators and spies.
Between the February 24 Russian invasion and the beginning of July, Ukraine decided to cancel the right of residence of 29 Belarusian citizens and 456 Russian citizens. Such cancellations had been extremely rare in previous years.
Yet two migrants facing deportation told openDemocracy that they fully support Ukraine in the war and believe they should be allowed to stay. Both say they would be at significant risk if deported.
Karyna Patsiomkina, 31, fled Belarus in late 2021, fearing prosecution for her opposition to Lukashenko’s regime. In recent months, she has become known in Bucha for her voluntary work in the city after her liberated from Russian occupation end of March.
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She received an eviction notice after applying for a permit 12 days late because the relevant office had been closed.
“I experienced the same [war] like the Ukrainians did,” she said. “Now Ukraine is my home – I don’t want to leave it.”
Patsiomkina was unable to apply for a permit from SMS as it was closed due to the war until May and did not respond to calls thereafter. When she finally made it to the agency in early July, 12 days after her initial 180-day permit expired, she was coldly received.
“I brought all my documents to the SMS, along with proof of my voluntary activities,” she said. “The employee didn’t even look at them – she just wrote a report on me, arguing that I’m not a political refugee. I did not agree to sign it, because it is not true.
Two days later, Patsiomkina received her passport with a stamp stating that she should be deported from Ukraine for overstaying.
Supported by the Bucha City Council, which knew her from her voluntary work, Patsiomkina wrote a complaint to the head of the State Migration Service.
“Thanks to me constantly coming back to the text and all the appeals I made, they re-examined my case and rescinded the eviction stamp,” she said.
When Patsiomkina contacted SMS again to apply for a permit, she was told that she was an illegal migrant and could not apply. She hopes the SMS will grant her temporary protection, but the process is currently on hold. She feels very upset about the whole situation.
“There are no good Russians”
“At first, I completely associated with Ukrainians,” says Andrey Sidorkin, a Russian citizen who has lived in Ukraine for 17 years on a permanent residence permit. “I tried to join a territorial defense unit. As the Russian troops approached, I felt the need to intervene. I’ll be the first to be shot as a collaborator [if Russia wins].”
But now Sidorkin, a 41-year-old artist and musician from St. Petersburg, faces deportation.
Sidorkin moved to Ukraine in 2005, following his then girlfriend. He was briefly married to a Ukrainian woman and is now divorced.
A vocal critic of Putin’s regime, he began volunteering with civil defense in Kyiv after the invasion began.
His license was stolen while running errands in the city in April. Thinking it would be simple to get a new one, he asked for a replacement.
According to Nataliya Naumenko, head of the SMS, citizens of the Russian Federation who already have temporary or permanent residence permits can continue to reside in Ukraine, which means that the process should have been simple.
Still, the SMS decided to dig back years into Sidorkin’s records — and ended up revoking his residence permit altogether.
“They justified the cancellation based on the fact that the information presented [to SMS] did not match the information kept in my file,” he said.
Ukraine’s immigration law states that a residence permit can be revoked if “it turns out that the permit was granted on the basis of knowingly false information, false documents or documents that have lost their validity “.
“They objected to the fact that the date of the divorce is before the date of obtaining a migration permit – that’s what an SMS employee told me,” says Sidorkin.
One explanation for the aggressive handling of Sidorkin’s case may lie in Naumenko’s announcement in May of a review of all temporary or permanent permits to Russian citizens “to single out those who may carry out certain activities against Ukraine.”
As part of this tougher policy, SMS now performs additional checks on Russian citizens alongside Ukrainian law enforcement. Before receiving any documents via SMS, Russian citizens like Sidorkin must pass an interview with an officer of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) and go separately to the State Investigation Bureau for a similar interview. They are asked about their political views, their relatives and friends in Russia, as well as their views on the invasion of Ukraine and Russia.
But there are also allegations of corruption within the SMS. At the beginning of July, Dmytro Lemesh, head of the central interregional department of the service in Kyiv, was in charge of accepting a bribe from a person applying for a permanent residence permit, which he refuses.
Meanwhile, Sidorkin has appealed the decision on his residence permit, which will be judged, and during this time he is allowed to stay in Ukraine.
“I have the right to be repatriated to Israel as a Jew,” he said. “But it’s a last resort, because Israel is not quite my type of country. Of course, if I lose the case, there will be no choice but to pack my bags and move somewhere.
He now feels alienated in Ukraine, the country where he once called home.
“When the negativity started flying in my direction…at first it was abstract but soon it became the phrase ‘there are no good Russians’, and the ground disappeared under my feet,” did he declare. “Because formally, at least according to my passport, I am Russian.”
Ukrainian NGO Pravo na Zahyst (Right to Protection), which protects refugees in Ukraine, told openDemocracy that while the SMS has the right to carry out additional checks on Sidorkin, any decision on his deportation would have to be made by a court.
Ukraine has a long history of poor migration policy, with a number of infamous cases of deportation of political asylum seekers. Moreover, the process for foreigners wishing to obtain a residence permit in Ukraine is notoriously long and bureaucratic.
Asylum is very rarely granted (in 2020, for example, SMS only granted asylum to 39 people). Since February 24, it has been impossible to apply for asylum in Ukraine, or even to apply for protected status – a category which can be granted to people who do not meet the asylum criteria but who would run a real risk of harm if returned to their country of origin.
Pravo na Zahyst said: “In order for Ukraine to meet its international obligations, the State Migration Service of Ukraine should restore as soon as possible the procedure for accepting applications for recognition as a refugee or as a person with need additional protection.
Other than cracking down on permits and asylum, SMS does not currently review citizenship applications from Russians.
However, the fact that a handful of cases have been expedited has caused some uproar in the country. In June, it was reported that President Volodymyr Zelensky granted Ukrainian citizenship to Russian journalist Oleksandr Nevzorov and his wife Lidia Nevzorova. A former politician who criticized Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Nevzorov had previously been a supporter of Putin’s regime. The favor granted to him made Russians and Belarusians living in Ukraine feel that their treatment was even more unfair.
The war in Russia has also impacted civil society’s ability to challenge the migration service, with leading migrant rights activist Maksym Butkevych currently in captivity in Russia.
Since the 2020 anti-government protests in Belarus, Belarusians have enjoyed a more lenient migration policy in Ukraine than Russians: they can stay 180 days in the country, and only then do they need a temporary permit. This policy has not changed and SMS seems less inclined to cancel the residence permits of Belarusians.
The agency told openDemocracy that it does not revoke immigration permits en masse and only takes action when Ukrainian law warrants it.