Navigating Limbo: Rights of stateless people during the ongoing war in Ukraine

Olena Tarasiuk, Anastasiia Koval and Sofiia Kordonets, Right to Protection
/ 6 mins read

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine that started in February 2022 has worsened an already complicated situation for stateless and undocumented people living in Ukraine. ENS member organisation Right to Protection (R2P), with support from HIAS, has conducted research among a group of stateless individuals in the country, revealing the increased challenges they face in accessing their fundamental rights since the outbreak of war. 

A photo of a passport with a drawing inside it

With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, tens of thousands of individuals were left stateless in Ukraine: migration, administrative obstacles, loss of documents and archives were major obstacles to confirming their nationality. The war that started in 2014 further exacerbated the situation as many of the archives storing important information about individuals’ existence and major life events (birth, marriage, education, employment, address registration) have been destroyed or are inaccessible due to occupation. This made it virtually impossible to confirm some people’s nationality or other status in Ukraine. 

In 2021, Ukraine finally adopted a statelessness determination procedure (SDP) in line with its international obligations. However, newly recognised individuals can only obtain a temporary residence permit and there is no specific ID card confirming statelessness status. This is problematic since access to most rights and national services are dependent on having a permanent residence permit, relegating stateless individuals to a similar status to foreigners, despite having lived in Ukraine for years. Moreover, of the 35,000 stateless people in Ukraine (according to UNHCR), only 790 people have been granted a temporary residence permit through the procedure as of September 2023.

Researching the Impact of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine

The full-scale invasion of Ukraine that started in February 2022 has only worsened the situation of stateless and undocumented people living in Ukraine. With this geopolitical development, it is important to investigate the true situation of stateless people in Ukraine and identify the obstacles that prevent them from exercising their rights. The Right to Protection (R2P), with support from HIAS, has conducted research to identify difficulties faced by undocumented people who cannot confirm their nationality, recognised stateless people and those going through the SDP, particularly in times of full-scale war. 

The R2P team took about one month to survey targeted audience among R2P’s beneficiaries and conducted 350 phone calls to reach 100 people (45 women and 55 men), with an average age of 44 years old. The number of phone calls can be explained by the fact that a lot of undocumented and/or stateless people either do not have their own phones, must borrow someone else’s, or are in unprotected jobs which doesn’t allow them to freely answer the phone. 

The survey showed that 62% of all undocumented people were born in Ukraine (either in the USSR or later), 34% of people have or had a USSR passport and have never exchanged it, 12% belong to the Romani population, 8% are homeless or recently released from prison. Below are the main survey findings.

Access to healthcare

32% of the interviewees reported having chronic illnesses, 11% require urgent medical attention, and 9% have disabilities. Yet due to their lack of documentation, 56% of the respondents have never sought medical assistance from the State. Among those who did seek help, one third were denied it. The reasons given for this refusal were related to the respondents’ lack of documentation, coupled with the financial burden of having to pay for medical services. 

Access to education

Every child in Ukraine, regardless of their status, is entitled to receive free primary and secondary education. However, students are not allowed to take their final exams without a Ukrainian ID and are therefore deprived of the opportunity to obtain a completion certificate from their educational institution and to pursue higher education. Despite this, there is a positive trend among respondents expressing a desire to pursue further education, with 34% expressing interest in acquiring new skills or qualifications. 

Access to employment

According to national legislation, once stateless individuals apply for statelessness status, they have the right to work in the country. However, the survey shows that only 15% of the respondents are in full-time paid employment and 47% aren’t in any form of paid employment. The rest of working interviewees are either in part-time work or restricted to seasonal employment opportunities. For 69% of the respondents, the lack of identity documentation plays a large part in their difficulties in finding employment. Their lack of educational documents (affecting 14% of respondents) and health conditions (in 18% of the cases) are also factors in their struggle to find employment. Furthermore, the employment prospects of undocumented people have been significantly affected by the war in 2022, forcing many into unemployment (in 35% of the cases). 

Income, housing, and humanitarian aid

Alarmingly, the majority of respondents (61%) reported a decrease in their income compared to pre-war times. Furthermore, 18% of respondents indicated that their housing was either destroyed or damaged as a result of war, while 21% reported a lack of access to housing stemming from the occupation and the associated displacement toward Ukrainian-controlled territory. The findings of the survey also reveal that 69% of the respondents have never received assistance from non-governmental organisations and 56.5% of them cited the lack of identity documents as the primary reason for this. One of the respondents stated: "the secretary of the village council made my child pour the contents of the humanitarian aid package onto the floor when she found out that we do not have identity documents". Fortunately, the other 31% of respondents said they received aid at least once from religious organisations.

Freedom of movement

Regarding their freedom of movement, undocumented individuals face significant challenges in times of war as it is more difficult for them to flee the hostilities without being at risk of being deprived of their liberty and detained. Since the war's onset in 2022, 45% reported experiencing difficulties in moving around Ukraine. Nearly a third (27%) cited challenges in purchasing train tickets without official documentation. Increased document checks at checkpoints under martial law have further restricted their mobility, with 8% reporting detention by law enforcement. Also, in the case of detention by law enforcement agencies, there is a risk of fines for violations of migration legislation and decisions on deportation. 

Recommendations to address issues faced by stateless people in Ukraine

Stateless individuals – whether recognised or not – face incredible hardship due to their limited access to basic rights, which has been exacerbated by the current military and political situation. 
Taking into account the findings of the research, four recommendations which could help prevent and address the issues faced by stateless people in Ukraine can be made: 

  • Reduce statelessness by granting the right to nationality to all children born on the territory of Ukraine, regardless of the legal status of their parents. 
  • Increase awareness about statelessness both among civil servants and society to ensure their full access to their rights. 
  • Develop solutions to provide access to essential State services, such as medical care, social protection, or other urgent medical conditions for those who do not have any documents. 
  • Simplify access to non-urgent medical treatment treatment, housing, and necessary care for undocumented people affected by hostilities. 

To find other resources on the war in Ukraine and protection of stateless people, please visit our Statelessness & Ukraine crisis page.

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