Belarusians Struggle to Settle in Ukraine

Many who fled the uprising say life in the neighbouring country has not been easy.

Belarusians Struggle to Settle in Ukraine

Many who fled the uprising say life in the neighbouring country has not been easy.

Wednesday, 10 March, 2021

Belarussians seeking refuge in neighbouring Ukraine have complained that, despite the formal welcome offered by Kyiv, bureaucracy is making it hard for them to settle.

Many people who fled following last August’s uprising, sparked by disputed presidential elections, moved to Ukraine. The State Border Service reported that more than 150,000 Belarusians crossed the land border into Ukraine between August 2020 to January 2021, although not all remained in the country.

Ukrainian migration policy offers two options for those wishing to remain - either obtaining a residence permit or refugee status. People prefer the former, since refugee status involves a complex bureaucratic process that can last up to a year, during which time people have no papers and can neither work nor leave the country.

According to the migration service, only 17 people have been awarded this status in the last year. In contrast, between August to December last year, 1,902 Belarusians received residence permits, 1,533 of them for a temporary stay.

Belarussians could initially stay in Ukraine for 90 days without any additional permits. Last September, a number of human rights organisations called on the government to extend the period to a year, as was done in neighbouring Poland and Lithuania.

President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a decree the following month extending this period from 90 to 180 days for highly qualified specialists, which passed into law a further two months later. During this period, thousands more Belarusians arrived in Ukraine.

Vladimir Zhbankov, a lawyer from the volunteer Free Belarus Center, explained that the 180-day period was counted for the entire year preceding the application for a residence permit, which contradicted international legal norms.

He also stressed that Ukraine’s immigration agency had a very strict approach to deadlines and documents. If an element of the case was found to be wrong, the application was refused without right of appeal.

All necessary documents had to be submitted no later than 15 working days before the end of the stay, but this was further complicated by quarantine restrictions which meant that many government departments had shifted to remote working.  Appointment were limited and often took many days to arrange.

Palina Brodik, the coordinator of the Free Belarus Center, said that further difficulties were likely when it came to finding a place of residence from which to register.

“Almost no landlord is ready to provide such an opportunity for foreigner,” she said, adding, “And if a person does not have time to find a place to register within the appointed time, he may be deprived of his residence permit.”

This was the experience of Nikita, an advertising manager who worked in the office of one of the opposition candidates and, fearing for his safety, fled Belarus in August.

He said that he spent his first month in Ukraine searching for a place to live as not all landlords were willing to host a foreigner. He found housing after dozens of refusals and only with the help of a volunteer organisation.

IT specialists are supposed to find it easier to stay and work in Ukraine. According to the ministry of digital transformation, 40 IT companies and 2,000 freelancers moved to Ukraine from Belarus as of the end of December 2020. But not all those in the industry have found it easy to get a job.

Gosha, who has ten years of experience in the programming field, arrived in Ukraine because, he said, “it was not safe to stay in Belarus”.

He had believed his specialist skills would make it easy for him to find a job and obtained a residence permit. 

However, he found that about ten per cent of firms refused him because they only hired Ukrainians, while others offered salaries much lower than that paid in Belarus for the same work. Eventually, Gosha was employed by a Belarusian company registered in Ukraine.

“So far I don’t want to leave Ukraine, even if getting a humanitarian visa from Poland looks much more attractive than running around with documents here in Ukraine,” he said. “I will try to get a residence permit, but if it does not work out, I will think about something else. So far, I know for sure that I cannot return to Belarus.”

This publication was prepared under the "Giving Voice, Driving Change - from the Borderland to the Steppes Project" implemented with the financial support of the Foreign Ministry of Norway.

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