Fleeing war at home, Ukrainians seek security in Poland

AFP| Last Updated: Feb 12, 2015, 00:21 AM IST

 For a rising number of Ukrainians, Poland is looking like the promised land as the war at home forces them to seek safe haven in their European Union neighbour.

"Everyone I know from my region has lost a relative. The situation has become unbearable over there!" Olga Aliekdieiva, a Ukrainian university student studying in Warsaw, told AFP.

She hails from Lugansk, a Ukrainian region on the Russian border. Along with the nearby city of Donetsk, it has seen civilian casualties soar amid clashes between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian separatists.

"My grandmother died of a heart attack this summer after a shell just missed her," she says.

Insecurity, spiralling prices, division of the country in the east and fear of military conscription are pushing more and more Ukrainians to leave.

"It`s very difficult to get refugee status in Poland. I`ve asked for it so I can stay in the European Union, but there`s little chance I`ll get it," frets Albert Habbazov, an engineer in his twenties working in Poland`s eastern city of Bialystok. Born in Antratsit in the Lugansk region, Albert learnt that his house was destroyed during clashes.

Poland received 2,318 asylum petitions from Ukrainians in 2014 compared to 46 the previous year, according to Poland`s UDSC, a government agency dealing with immigration matters.

Over 200 requests were made this January alone, but the majority will be rejected.

Asylum applicants from Ukraine`s Russian-speaking Donbass region and the Crimean peninsula annexed by Russia last March often identify themselves as economic migrants rather than political refugees, according to Marta Kindler, with Warsaw University`s Migration Research Centre.

They are unaware that obtaining refugee status requires evidence of political persecution by their home state.

"If I returned to Ukraine, I`m going to be drafted for military service. I can`t go back because this is war!", says Habbazov, who has also asked for a temporary work permit to extend his stay in Poland.Many Ukrainians are used to shuttling to and from Poland, where they work on temporary six-month visas to earn their living. The number of applicants is on the rise, increasing from 720,125 in 2013 to 830,553 in 2014, according to UDSC. 

A large number of the migrant labourers remain undeclared by their employers, and work as temporary or seasonal workers, in construction or agriculture for men, and housekeeping or babysitting for women.

Adam Gryszkiewicz, who works for SIP -- a non-profit organisation that helps immigrants obtain legal status in Poland -- admits that there is a "culture of working under the table" in Poland. But he adds that a rising number of Ukrainians are coming to see him to get their papers in order and apply for a temporary visa, a prerequisite for settling here.

The number of work permit applications doubled from 2013 to 2014, according to UDSC. The phenomenon is not limited to Poland. 

Since February 2014, some 600,000 Ukrainians have sought asylum or other forms of legal residence in neighbouring countries including Belarus, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and especially Russia, according to the UN high commission for refugees (UNHCR).

Poland says it is ready to respond in case of a mass exodus from Ukraine. The EU member is one of the most anti-Russian countries in the world, according to a survey last year by the Pew Research Center.

Eighty-one percent of Polish respondents said they had an unfavourable view of Russia, the largest portion of all the 44 countries surveyed by the Pew pollsters in March-June 2014.

But many Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the south-east have sought refuge in Russia. The UNHCR has recorded 830,000 such individuals since April 2014.

Many choose to go into exile in the European Union, especially Italy or Spain. Around 172,000 requested asylum in the 28-member bloc since mid-September 2014.