UNHCR training helps sensitise Kyiv's police to asylum issues

The UN refugee agency and the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society recently held a training session in Kyiv, Ukraine, to train police officers on ways to improve the implementation of refugee legislation and to prevent undue detention and deportation of asylum seekers.

Kyiv's police officers watching a UNHCR video on refugees during the training session on 22 July, 2004.   © UNHCR/N.Prokopchuk

KYIV, Ukraine, July 29 (UNHCR) - Angolan refugee Emmanuel is well acquainted with the law. As a colonel in the police force in his hometown, he was responsible for detachments. But when he fled the civil war in his country and arrived in Ukraine, he found himself on the "wrong" side of the law, facing many obstacles when he tried to register as a refugee.

"I understand that the police in any country have to stand for the law. I respect the police uniform but I would like to ask the police to respect refugees as well," said Emmanuel, who now works as a counsellor and translator in the Legal Protection Programme of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) in Kyiv.

The Angolan refugee was speaking at a workshop last Thursday funded by the UN refugee agency and organised by HIAS to train 46 police officers heading the key units responsible for maintaining public order, combating illegal migration and registering asylum seekers and refugees in Kyiv. The session aimed to train them on ways to improve how refugee legislation is implemented and to prevent undue detention and deportation of asylum seekers.

"I think it's important to make Interior Ministry staff learn more and understand their responsibilities, as they are law enforcement officials," said Subotenko Valentyna, who heads the Citizenship Sector in the Citizenship Department of Ukraine's President Administration. "Often they are among the first people asylum seekers encounter in our country. In many cases it depends on the police whether people will be given access to the refugee status determination procedure or will spend uncertain time in detention."

Under Ukraine's revised refugee law implemented from late 2002, asylum seekers can stay in the country legally during the government's refugee status determination process. Everyone who has filed his or her asylum claim receives an identity document from the migration service to legitimise his or her stay.

However, in areas like Kyiv - which hosts the majority of recognised refugees (1,107) and asylum seekers (745) in the country - the city's migration service lacks the capacity to deal with so many people. Asylum seekers often have to wait two or three months to file their applications. In the meantime, UNHCR issues unofficial documents known as pending letters to protect these people of concern.

But even these pending letters could not protect many asylum seekers who were detained for identity checks during the "Migrant" police operation launched in the capital in spring this year. The training session was agreed on after UNHCR raised its concerns with the Interior Ministry and following several meetings with high-ranking officials.

Zhana Karbovnich, senior inspector of Kyiv's Podil District Department of Interior Ministry, found the workshop very useful. "I was appointed to this post three months ago, so I did not have a clear understanding of who are refugees and the difference between them, illegal immigrants or any other foreigners. I needed to learn more and this training was just in time. The UNHCR Global View video helped me to understand the situation in countries refugees come from, and what forced them to flee. Migration and refugees are not problems specific to Ukraine, it's a worldwide problem."

She added that the training confirmed her instinct to respect UNHCR-issued pending letters during the "Migrant" operation.

At the workshop, UNHCR not only gave presentations on refugee protection and the rationale for issuing pending letters, but it also launched a new information brochure, 5,000 copies of which are being distributed to police units throughout the country to help them identify persons requesting international protection.

Hryhoriy Vasyliuk, deputy commander of the Special Detachment "Berkut" responsible for public security in Kyiv, said, "Brochures distributed during the training session had examples of IDs and UNHCR pending letters that are very useful. It will definitely help our street patrols to see who is illegal and who has some legal grounds to stay in the country, like the holders of those certificates and UNHCR pending letters. Every patrol will get a copy of this brochure and instructions from me."

However, not all the participants agreed. "We respect only IDs issued by the migration service. UNHCR is not authorised to issue identification documents to asylum seekers and we don't recognise them as official ones," said Volodymyr Savin, another senior inspector at the ministry.

He added, "During our operations in train stations and markets, we saw a number of migrants with such documents. They all said they did not want to get refugee status here, that they paid $10,000 to $15,000 to smugglers to get to western Europe. I met people from China or Pakistan claiming they would like to apply for refugee status. I don't believe them - there is no war or conflict in their countries, they don't have any grounds to apply."

Responding to the criticism, UNHCR's senior protection officer in Kyiv, Hans Schodder, said, "UNHCR is fully aware the pending letters are not an official document but just a temporary measure to protect people from fines and detention. We can abolish them as soon as the migration service issues IDs to asylum seekers in accordance with the law. This is Ukraine's commitment as a party to the 1951 Convention."

He stressed that UNHCR and HIAS conduct thorough registration and interviews to see if a person is in need of protection before issuing any document.

In all, Ukraine hosts 3,000 recognised refugees and 1,700 asylum seekers.