oDR: Feature

Ukraine’s Russian and Belarusian citizens are living in fear of deportation

Even those who back Ukraine could lose their right to stay thanks to a crackdown by the State Migration Service

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Kateryna Semchuk
27 July 2022, 3.52pm

Illustration: Anna Scherbyna

Russian and Belarusian citizens in Ukraine are living in fear of deportation as the country steps up an overzealous drive to get rid of what it claims are collaborators and spies.

Between the Russian invasion on 24 February and the start of July, Ukraine issued decisions to cancel the right to stay of 29 Belarusian and 456 Russian citizens. Such cancellations had been extremely rare in previous years.

Yet two migrants who were threatened with deportation have told openDemocracy they fully support Ukraine in the war, and feel they should be allowed to stay. Both say they would be significantly at risk were they to be deported.

Karyna Patsiomkina, 31, fled Belarus at the end of 2021, fearing prosecution because of her opposition to Lukashenko’s regime. In recent months, she has become known in Bucha for her volunteering work in the city after it was freed from Russian occupation at the end of March.

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She was served notice of deportation after she was 12 days late applying for a permit – because the relevant office had been closed.

“I lived through the same [war] as Ukrainians did,” she said. “Now Ukraine is my home – I don’t want to leave it.”

Patsiomkina was unable to apply for a permit at the SMS as it was closed because of the war until May, and not responding to calls afterwards. When she finally managed to get to the agency at the beginning of July, 12 days after her original 180-day permit had expired, she was received coolly.

“I brought all my documents to the SMS, with evidence of my volunteer activities,” she said. “The employee did not even look at them – she simply wrote a report on me, arguing that I am not a political refugee. I did not agree to sign it, because it is not true.”

Two days later, Patsiomkina received her passport back with a stamp declaring she was to be deported from Ukraine for overstaying.

Backed by Bucha City Council, which knew of her through her volunteer work, Patsiomkina wrote a complaint to the head of the State Migration Service.

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Karyna Patsiomkina posing with her passport stamped with a deportation order and a letter overruling the deportation.

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Karyna Patsiomkina

“Thanks to the fact that I constantly went back to the SMS and to all the appeals I made, they reviewed my case and cancelled the deportation stamp,” she said.

When Patsiomkina contacted the SMS again to apply for a permit, she was told she was an illegal migrant and would not be able to apply. She hopes the SMS will grant her temporary protection, but the process has currently been suspended. She feels very upset about the whole situation.

“There are no good Russians”

“At first, I associated myself completely with Ukrainians,” says Andrey Sidorkin, a Russian citizen who has lived in Ukraine for 17 years with a permanent residence permit. “I tried to get into a territorial defence unit. As Russian troops approached, I felt I needed to step up. I will be the first to be shot as a collaborator [if Russia wins].”

But now Sidorkin, a 41-year-old artist and musician originally from St Petersburg, faces deportation.

Sidorkin moved to Ukraine in 2005, following his then girlfriend. He was briefly married to a Ukrainian woman, and is now divorced.

An outspoken critic of Putin’s regime, he started volunteering with the civilian defence in Kyiv after the invasion began.

His permit was stolen while he was shopping in the city in April. Thinking it would be straightforward to obtain a new one, he applied for a replacement.

According to Nataliya Naumenko, the head of the SMS, citizens of the Russian Federation who already have temporary or permanent residence permits can continue to reside in Ukraine, meaning the process should have been simple.

Yet the SMS decided to dig years back into Sidorkin’s files – and ended up cancelling his residence permit altogether as a result.

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Andrey Sidorkin posing with the letter announcing that his residence permit had been cancelled.

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Andrey Sidorkin

“They justified the cancellation based on the fact that the information presented [to SMS] did not match the information kept in my file,” he said.

Ukrainian immigration law states that a residency permit might be cancelled if “it turns out that the permit was granted on the basis of knowingly false information, forged documents or documents that have lost their validity”.

“They objected to the fact that the date of divorce is earlier than the date of obtaining a migration permit – that's what an employee at SMS has told me,” Sidorkin says.

One explanation for the aggressive treatment of Sidorkin’s case may lie in Naumenko’s announcement in May of a review of all temporary or permanent permits to Russian citizens “in order to single out those who can carry out certain activities against Ukraine”.

As part of this harsher policy, SMS is now conducting additional checks on Russian citizens alongside Ukraine’s law enforcement agencies. Before receiving documents at SMS, Russian citizens like Sidorkin have to go through an interview with an officer of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and separately visit the State Bureau of Investigation for a similar interview. They are questioned about their political views, relatives and friends in Russia, as well as their views on Ukraine and Russia’s invasion.

But there are also allegations of corruption within the SMS. At the start of July, Dmytro Lemesh, head of the service’s Central Interregional Department in Kyiv, was charged with accepting a bribe from someone applying for a permanent residence permit, which he denies.

Meanwhile, Sidorkin has appealed the decision regarding his residence permit, which will go to trial, and during that time he’s allowed to stay in Ukraine.

“I have the right to repatriate to Israel as a Jew,” he said. “But this is a last resort, because Israel isn’t quite my type of country. Of course, if I lose the case, there will be no other option but to pack up and move somewhere.”

He now feels alienated in Ukraine, the country where he had once felt at home.

“When negativity started to fly in my direction… first, it was abstract but soon it turned into the phrase ‘there are no good Russians’, and the ground has disappeared under my feet,” he said. “Because formally, at least according to my passport, I’m Russian.”

Ukrainian NGO Pravo na Zahyst (Right to Protection), which protects refugees who find themselves in Ukraine, told openDemocracy that while the SMS had a right to conduct additional checks on Sidorkin, any decision as to his expulsion would have to be taken by a court.

Migration policy

Ukraine has a long history of poor migration policy, with a number of infamous cases of deportation of political asylum seekers. What’s more, the process for foreigners wishing to obtain a residence permit in Ukraine is notoriously long and bureaucratic.

Asylum is very rarely granted (in 2020, for instance, SMS granted asylum to just 39 people). Since 24 February, it has been impossible to claim asylum in Ukraine at all, or even to ask for protected status – a category that can be granted to people who don’t meet the criteria for asylum but would face a real risk of harm if returned to their country of origin.

Pravo na Zahyst said: “In order for Ukraine to comply with its international obligations, the State Migration Service of Ukraine should restore as soon as possible the procedure for accepting applications for recognition as a refugee or as a person in need of complementary protection.”

As well as clamping down on permits and asylum, SMS is not currently considering applications for citizenship from Russians.

However, the fact that a handful of cases have been fast-tracked has caused some uproar in the country. In June, it was reported that president Volodymyr Zelenskyi had granted Ukrainian citizenship to Russian journalist Oleksandr Nevzorov and his wife Lidia Nevzorova. A former politician who had criticised Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Nevzorov had previously been a supporter of Putin’s regime. The favour he was granted made Russians and Belarusians living in Ukraine feel their treatment was even more unfair.

Russia’s war has also impacted civil society's ability to challenge the migration service, with leading migration rights activist Maksym Butkevych currently in Russian captivity.

Since Belarus’s 2020 anti-government protests, Belarusians have benefited from a more lenient migration policy in Ukraine than Russians: they are able to stay for 180 days in the country, and only then do they need to have a temporary permit. This policy has not changed and SMS seems to be less intent on cancelling Belarusians’ residence permits.

The agency told openDemocracy it was not cancelling immigration permits en masse, and was only taking action when justified by Ukrainian law.

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