Assisting stateless people trapped in Ukraine: report from the ground

Kseniia Karahiaur and Oleksandra Aivazian, R2P Project on Legal Assistance to Stateless Population
/ 9 mins read

The staff of R2P’s statelessness project have spent the last few weeks trying to reach their approximately 700 beneficiaries to assess their situation and offer support in the wake of the Russian invasion. This blog provides a situation update from the ground on issues faced by stateless people trapped by the conflict in Ukraine.

R2P assistance in Ukraine
R2P assistance in Ukraine, image courtesy of R2P Twitter

Right to Protection (R2P) is a Ukrainian NGO and one of three organisational members of ENS in Ukraine. R2P operates in close partnership with the global NGO ‘HIAS’ one of the world’s oldest refugee aid organisations. Since it was established, R2P has been dedicated to protecting the rights of asylum seekers, refugees, stateless and undocumented people, the internally displaced, and victims of conflict.

R2P’s Project on Legal Assistance to Stateless Population works closely with ENS to protect the rights of stateless people and those at risk of statelessness in Ukraine through the provision of direct legal assistance, training, research, advocacy, and other activities. The last census in 2001 recorded 82,550 stateless people in Ukraine. In 2021, UNHCR estimated that 35,875 people in Ukraine were stateless or had ‘undetermined nationality’. However, only 6,047 stateless people were legally residing in Ukraine at the end of 2021. Approximately 10-20% of the estimated 400,000 Romani people living in Ukraine are stateless or at risk of statelessness. Additionally, 55% of children born in Donetsk and Luhansk and 88% of children born in Crimea were reported to lack Ukrainian birth certificates or personal documents, putting them at risk of statelessness.

Adapting R2P’s activities in response to the invasion

Since the escalation of the conflict in Ukraine last month, R2P staff have had to adjust their activities to focus on the evacuation and resettlement process. To ensure the best possible response under such challenging conditions, all R2P projects have combined their efforts to provide information and assistance to people in need, as well as to facilitate access to rights and to promote humanitarian standards through advocacy efforts. The R2P team adjusted its legal hotline for Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) to provide consultation, assistance, coordination, and support to IDPs, evacuees, and people located in encircled or occupied localities on any issue or question they might have. R2P is also present at the borders with Poland, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary to identify gaps and issues there for further advocacy and provision of services. R2P officers are conducting monitoring visits to temporary accommodation centers for IDPs in different regions of Ukraine to reach beneficiaries and establish their key needs.

Assessing the situation facing stateless (and at risk) people in Ukraine

The staff of R2P’s statelessness project have bravely spent the last few weeks trying to reach their approximately 700 beneficiaries to assess their situation and offer support in the wake of the Russian invasion. Most beneficiaries in touch with R2P have not been displaced so far. Only 24 (17%) of the 138 people R2P has been able to reach so far have fled in search of safer settlements. Three stateless people who held residence permits in Ukraine reported that they had fled to Poland. Two held statelessness status, having been recognised under Ukraine’s new Statelessness Determination Procedure (SDP) introduced in 2021. Two further people with ‘undefined nationality’ were able to flee to Poland with an expired travel document or ‘1974 passport’ from the Former-USSR. One person left Ukraine for Germany with a certificate of application for recognition as a stateless person. Overall, six people reported that they were able to cross the Ukrainian border and flee to EU countries despite not having a valid passport or travel document. Another 18 people have been internally displaced within Ukraine.  

There are currently many internal checkpoints (“blockposts”) all around Ukraine. An identity document may be required to pass a checkpoint. The absence of documents could be an obstacle to moving freely around the country, but so far, R2P has not had reports of people being prevented from moving due to lack of documents. Most of the statelessness project’s beneficiaries do not have any document that identifies them. Some may have a birth certificate, a certificate of application under the SDP, a UNHCR Protection Letter, a USSR passport, or a marriage or other type of certificate. However, 10 (7%) of the 138 people R2P is in contact with currently do not have any documents at all.

Project staff have also been assessing their beneficiaries’ humanitarian needs. Of the 138 people R2P is in touch with, 12 people from Dergachivsky, Lozivsky districts (Kharkiv region), Irpen (Kyiv region), Avdiivka (Donetsk region), Sumy city and Bilopillya (Sumy region), Sievierodonetsk city and Sievierodonetsk district (Luhansk region) said that they did not have any drinking water and/or food. Seven people from Kyiv region informed R2P that they are almost out of water and/or food. Some receive assistance from local authorities, NGOs, churches, and the local population. 28 of those R2P is in touch with have young children, some of whom urgently need age-appropriate nutrition and other basic supplies such as nappies. People in the Kyiv region reported that they are hiding in shelters from shelling, and some of those in Luhansk region said their localities are currently occupied by military formations of the Russian Federation.

Stories of stateless people caught up in the conflict

Many of the stateless people and people at risk of statelessness who the project works with are individuals who previously held passports from the Former-USSR but lost them and are now undocumented. The majority of this group are elderly with no source of income, and many have long-term health conditions. Even before the war, they were reliant on NGOs for assistance, including for food and medicines. Since the invasion, this group of beneficiaries has become even more vulnerable.

Mariia (all names have been changed to protect anonymity) came to Ukraine from Kazakhstan in the 1990s and lived here for a long time with a USSR passport. She later lost her USSR passport and was unable to obtain Ukrainian citizenship as she could not establish her identity nor prove that she was a resident of Ukraine in 1991 (to qualify for Ukrainian citizenship upon the dissolution of the USSR). R2P supported Mariia to apply to be recognised as stateless, providing a certificate from the consulate of Kazakhstan stating that she did not have Kazakh citizenship. Mariia should have been about to receive statelessness status in Ukraine, and with this, the opportunity to acquire a travel document and reunite with her relatives living in Kazakhstan for the first time in many years.  Mariia has asthma and major lung problems. She needs medical care. However, due to the outbreak of hostilities, she was forced to flee from Kyiv. With her certificate of an application under the SDP, she managed to cross the border to Poland and made the onward journey to Germany. Project staff are doing their best to help her, so she does not lose her status as an SDP applicant. However, it is currently unclear whether she will be able to retain this status or continue the SDP procedure as Germany does not have an SDP and the EU Temporary Protection Directive does not require Members States to grant temporary protection to stateless people who did not previously have permanent residence or international protection in Ukraine.

Another significant group of project beneficiaries are people who were internally displaced from the occupied territories of Donbass between 2014 and 2020 and came to the territory controlled by Ukraine. Many had Ukrainian passports, but their documents were lost, destroyed, or left behind when they left the Non-Government Controlled Territories (NGCA). Ukraine has not had access to identity data files located in the NGCA since 2014, so many of these people resorted to applying for recognition as stateless persons under the SDP. Currently, many of them are stuck in the war zone and unable to leave. One of them, Oleksandr, was able to leave the occupied Makarovsky district of the Kyiv region together with members of his church and is now in Ternopil, helping newly arrived refugees. His documentation and citizenship status remain unclear.

Another large group of beneficiaries is made up of people who came to Ukraine with their parents at a young age after 1991. Many of those supported by the project are members of minority groups, including Roma, and come from very complex family backgrounds in which parents or guardians never resolved their children’s lack of documentation. Upon reaching the age of 16, these young people could not obtain a Ukrainian passport because they lacked any documentation or proof of family links. One of the project’s beneficiaries, Natalia, currently finds herself in the war zone in the city of Sumy with two children aged two and five years old. She has no way out. She is in dire need of support, without access to food, baby food, and personal hygiene products. She is completely reliant on the support of local volunteers.

What needs to happen next

Documentation problems faced by stateless people and those at risk of statelessness in Ukraine have become more complicated because local departments of justice and migration services are currently not functional in many eastern regions of the country. The legal status of R2P’s clients awaiting a decision under the SDP is unclear, and we do not know whether people who have fled Ukraine will be able to return. The Government of Ukraine needs to find solutions for these people, including finding ways to extend the validity of any documents that stateless people abroad hold and ensure the legal possibility for stateless and undocumented people who have fled without travel documents to return to Ukraine.

The R2P team have also noticed that undocumented people with undefined nationality displaced within Ukraine are facing obstacles to register as IDPs and receive the protection guaranteed by the Law On Ensuring the Rights and Freedoms of IDPs in Ukraine. Regional and local authorities, in particular in Western regions, must ensure that every displaced person has access to protection regardless of their legal status in Ukraine or ability to confirm their identity through documentation. Temporary accommodation and access to basic support and assistance must also be provided for undocumented people.

R2P is also concerned that according to the Council Implementing Decision (EU) 2022/382 of 4 March 2022 establishing the existence of a mass influx of displaced persons from Ukraine within the meaning of Article 5 of Directive 2001/55/EC, and having the effect of introducing temporary protection it is unclear whether a stateless person’s temporary residence permit from Ukraine will be considered as a document confirming “equivalent national protection in Ukraine”. R2P is aware of least two stateless people recognised under the SDP having entered the EU with temporary residence permits from Ukraine and urges EU Member States to be aware that recognised stateless people will have only a temporary residence permit, which should be considered as confirming “equivalent national protection in Ukraine”.

Despite the operational challenges we are facing at present, we wanted to write this piece to get important information out to the various actors responding to the crisis, and to make sure that stateless people are not forgotten. We hope to be able to share further information in due course as the situation develops.

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