Russia speeds up asylum procedures as Ukrainian influx continues

News Stories, 21 August 2014

© UNHCR/R.Hummel
Ukrainians in St Petersburg prepare for their first night in a Russian Red Cross emergency shelter.

ST. PETERSBURG, Russian Federation, August 21 (UNHCR) Before Ukraine's secession crisis erupted in February, the Federal Migration Service office in St. Petersburg handled 120 asylum applications a year, mainly from Asians and Africans.

Today, Ukrainians are arriving in the Russian city at a rate of 300 a day, according to the regional branch here of the Russian Red Cross, which has been working hard to provide assistance and help find shelter for those who need it.

Natalia,* one of the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have found their way to Russia's second largest city from eastern Ukraine, said she had been staying with friends, like many others. "Now their own relatives are arriving, so we have to move out and find a new place," she explained to UNHCR.

But the influx is having a positive effect on the asylum process, and that is good for the Ukrainians. UNHCR hopes asylum-seekers from other countries in Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa will also benefit. Recent legal changes allow for a simpler and faster asylum procedure for processing Ukrainians and for medical screening.

New arrivals from Ukraine apply for temporary asylum, a status that is usually granted within a few days and allows them to stay in the Russian Federation and receive assistance.

Many seem ready to remain here and have started looking for employment and putting down roots. Natalia has been lucky; her husband has found work as a technician and is waiting for his first salary payment. They have been spending time in a shelter since leaving the friend's house and are now looking for a place to rent.

Life is tougher for many others, but the St. Petersburg Red Cross branch, which has had a long cooperation with UNHCR on refugee issues, has been working closely with the Federal Migration Service, the municipality and potential employers to help the neediest Ukrainians.

The Red Cross runs a short-term emergency shelter for hardship cases, where Natalia and her husband have been staying. The regional branch is also providing legal and social counselling and is running a nationwide hotline for all refugees, Ukrainians or not.

Their most recent initiative is a day-care centre where Ukrainian parents can leave their children while they are running chores, getting documents or looking for employment. "These children are as traumatized as their parents and it does not help if they have to stand in queues for hours in this summer heat," said Tatiana Lineva of the Red Cross branch.

The influx of Ukrainians has also helped to raise public awareness in St. Petersburg about refugee issues and triggered a wave of solidarity in the city, including offers of shelter and donations of useful items. Some have also been donating their time as volunteer helpers.

UNHCR and the Red Cross in St. Petersburg hope this wave of sympathy will also benefit non-Ukrainian asylum-seekers and ease their difficult situation as well as facilitate their access to legal status and social support.

For most of the Ukrainian arrivals in St. Petersburg, returning to Ukraine does not seem to be on the cards. "Our own army has been shelling us. We do not want to go back if they take control," said Natalia, echoing the thoughts of others.

She and others stay in touch with friends and relatives in the Ukraine through the social media network Vkontakte. Natalia is in contact with people in her home town of Slovyansk, which is slowly emerging from conflict. But she won't return any time soon.

* Name changed for protection reasons.

By Melita H. Sunjic in St. Petersburg, Russian Federation




UNHCR country pages

Displacement, Disability and Uncertainty in Ukraine

To date, around 275,500 people have been displaced by fighting in Ukraine. They include some who live with disability, including Viktoria, aged 41, and her husband, Aleksandr, 40, who both have cerebral palsy. Life is difficult enough under normal circumstances for the couple, who also have two sons; 20-year-old Dima, and Ivan aged 19 months. Now it has become a real struggle.

At the end of July, shelling in the eastern Ukraine city of Donetsk forced Viktoria and Aleksandr to flee to the neighbouring Kharkiv region. It wasn't long before Viktoria's medication ran out. In a desperate bid to help, Aleksandr called the Rinat Akhmetov Foundation, which found them transportation and accommodation in Kharkiv.

From there, they were taken to the Promotei Summer Camp, located near the town of Kupiansk. The forest, fresh air and a lake near the camp offered a perfect setting to spend the summer. But, like 120 other internally displaced people (IDP) living there, all Viktoria and Aleksandr could think about was home. They had hoped to return by the Autumn. But it soon came and went.

Today, it is still not safe to go back to Donetsk. Moreover, the camp has not been prepared for the coming winter and the administration has asked people to leave by October 15. Neither Viktoria nor Aleksandr know where they and their young son can go next. The following photographs of the couple and their youngest child were taken by Emine Ziyatdinova.

Displacement, Disability and Uncertainty in Ukraine

Ukraine: Sorting through the Wreckage

Conflict has changed the city of Sloviansk in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. "We used to have such a beautiful, calm, tidy city," says Angelina, a social worker. Today, it is full of destroyed homes and infrastructure, a casualty of the fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian forces. More than half of the inhabitants - some 70,000 people - fled the city during the combat earlier this year. In recent weeks, with the city back under government control, some 15,000 have returned. But they face many challenges. Maria, aged 80, returned to a damaged home and sleeps in the kitchen with her family. She worries about getting her pension. The UN refugee agency has transported several tons of hygiene items and kitchen equipment to the city for distribution to those who lost their homes. Photojournalist Iva Zimova recently accompanied UNHCR staff as they visited more than 100 families to give put aid.

Ukraine: Sorting through the Wreckage

Displacement in Georgia

Tens of thousands of civilians are living in precarious conditions, having been driven from their homes by the crisis in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia.

On the morning of August 12, the first UNHCR-chartered plane carrying emergency aid arrived in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, the first UN assistance to arrive in the country since fighting broke out the previous week. The airlift brought in 34 tonnes of tents, jerry cans, blankets and kitchen sets from UNHCR's central emergency stockpile in Dubai. Items were then loaded onto trucks at the Tbilisi airport for transport and distribution.

A second UNHCR flight landed in Tbilisi on August 14, with a third one expected to arrive the following day. In addition, two UNHCR aid flights are scheduled to leave for Vladikavkaz in the Russian Federation the following week with mattresses, water tanks and other supplies for displaced South Ossetians.

Working with local partners, UNHCR is now providing assistance to the most vulnerable and needy. These include many young children and family members separated from one another. The situation is evolving rapidly and the refugee agency is monitoring the needs of the newly displaced population, which numbered some 115,000 on August 14.

Posted on 15 August 2008

Displacement in Georgia

Ukraine: Helping Hands Play video

Ukraine: Helping Hands

Ukrainian individuals and organizations, like Everybody Can Help, have been helping people displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine with clothing, food and other aid items. The volunteers at Everybody Can Help have helped more than 25,000 people.
Ukraine: Destruction in DonetskPlay video

Ukraine: Destruction in Donetsk

Alexander Kovalenko is one of the last people still living on his street in Donetsk, where the conflict in eastern Ukraine has left a trail of destruction. His home was struck by six shells and the roof was blown off. Now Alexander lives amid the rubble, in a little room he has fixed up, waiting for peace to return.
Ukraine: Returning and RebuildingPlay video

Ukraine: Returning and Rebuilding

The small town of Nikishino stood on the frontline of the fighting in eastern Ukraine. Two weeks into the ceasefire, 200 people have returned there determined to rebuild.