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Ukraine relieves refugees of baggage of exile

News Stories, 7 July 2004

© UNHCR Kyiv
Afghan refugee Hanifa Karimi speaking to the media after receiving her new refugee certificate and Convention Travel Document in Kyiv, Ukraine. She plans to visit her relatives in Russia.

KYIV, Ukraine (UNHCR) Refugees in Ukraine can now enjoy some of the same rights as citizens, including the right to travel, thanks to a revised law that was years in the making.

The Ukrainian Parliament adopted the revised Refugee Law in 2001, recognising that refugees should be granted social and economic rights equal to Ukrainian nationals. Where refugees used to have to renew their status every three months, the revised law gives them renewable certificates valid for one year. It also gives them the right to apply for Convention Travel Documents. However, the relevant article took three years to implement.

The first travel documents were presented by Hennadiy Moskal, head of the State Committee for Nationalities and Migration, to 20 refugees in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in June this year.

Among the group was Mohamid Abdiid, a 19-year-old Somali who arrived last year and was recognised as a refugee recently. "I am happy because I am still young and I can start a new life here," he said. "I want to study, to go to medical university. I believe one day I will become a paediatrician."

The travel documents, which UNHCR helped to produce, are particularly important for refugees who need to travel for personal or professional reasons. Without the documents, they face the threat of double exile because they can leave Ukraine but can never come back.

This was a problem faced by Emmanuel Kanawanga, who arrived from Angola in 1993, was recognised as a refugee in 1997 and now works as a legal counsellor and interpreter at the Hebrew Immigrants Aid Society in Kyiv.

Together with his Ukrainian wife and two-year-old daughter, he had wanted to visit their university friends in neighbouring Moldova, but risked being denied entry back into Ukraine.

When Kanawanga saw on television that the government had started issuing travel documents to refugees, he applied and received his certificates within two days. "I am very happy. I waited for these documents a long time," he said. "Now I can improve my professional skills, I can go for training and seminars abroad. It's important for me, for my professional growth."

Hanifa Karimi, an Afghan refugee living in eastern Ukraine's Kharkiv city, faced similar problems before the recent issuance of travel documents.

A graduate from Kharkiv State University's linguistics and economics faculties, she had been invited for several youth seminars and training abroad, including a European conference in Budapest last November on the rights of refugees and national minorities. But the Interior Ministry's Passport Service told her she could leave Ukraine but never come back. Unwilling to risk being separated from her parents and brother in Kharkiv, she declined the invitations.

With the help of UNHCR-sponsored lawyers, Karimi submitted a complaint to the State Committee for Nationalities and Migration, asking for the Convention Travel Document as envisaged by the 2001 Refugee Law. When she heard about the issuance this June, she approached the committee excitedly, but received a disappointing reply.

Hanifa was told that refugees in Kyiv received their new certificates and travel documents first, followed by other Ukrainian cities in alphabetical order. This meant that refugees in Kharkiv, which starts with the letter "X" in Cyrillic, would be among the last to receive their documents.

Fortunately, on the occasion of World Refugee Day on June 20, Hanifa was invited to the State Committee along with 20 other refugees to receive her new certificate and travel document.

© UNHCR Kyiv
The Ukrainian State Committee for Nationalities and Migration presenting refugees with their new documents in Kyiv.

"I struggled for my rights and finally I got these documents," she said. "First of all, I want to visit my uncle and his family in Russia, whom I have not seen for 15 years. And it's only one night by train from here."

All 3,000 recognised refugees in Ukraine are expected to receive their new refugee certificates and Convention Travel Documents by the end of this year. In the future, both documents will be issued automatically to each individual once he or she is recognised as a refugee.

Having survived long and tough journeys from their homelands, these refugees will have a chance to further their horizons through their newfound mobility. Hopefully, their Ukrainian travel documents will help them go a long way without being constrained by the baggage of exile.

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