The European Network on Statelessness (ENS) was able to catch up with Oleksandr Snitko, Statelessness Project Manager at the Tenth of April (‘Desyate Kvitnya’), an ENS member organisation based in Odesa, Ukraine. ENS asked Sasha about the Tenth of April’s work providing legal aid and social assistance to asylum seekers, refugees, internally displaced people, stateless people and Roma people in Ukraine, and how their work has changed through the war.
- Everyone at ENS is in awe of the bravery and skill of our Ukrainian members who remain working on the ground. How has your work changed since the February invasion and how have stateless people been impacted by this?
On the first day of the invasion, martial law was established, and freedom of movement was strictly controlled for everyone. The freedom of movement of stateless people was heavily impacted, as under martial law the police have the right to fine undocumented people. Fortunately, we have not had that many cases where people haven’t been able to reach our offices due to the police stopping or detaining them.
For the first couple of months, people also faced greater challenges earning money. For example, if people had to cross checkpoints to get to work, they wouldn’t be allowed to pass without documentation. Many people fled Ukraine when the war started but undocumented people faced huge barriers and were often not permitted to cross the border. There were some exemptions made where people were allowed to move to Moldova, Poland, or Hungary, but this was always at the discretion of border officials. Movement towards the west has been particularly difficult and sometimes it is also difficult for undocumented people to return to Ukraine.
Since February, we have adjusted our programmes to meet urgent needs wherever possible. Currently, alongside our legal work, we are more focused on social assistance, finding places where internally displaced people (IDPs) can stay and providing necessities such as mattresses, pillows and blankets. In the short-term we have also established some emergency shelters for children, and in the long-term, we hope to help renovate damaged houses. So, we are providing wider social support which feels important and pressing right now.
However, legal assistance is still a significant priority for our organisation. For example, we are providing legal assistance to IDPs who had to leave their homes in a hurry without their documentation. It’s been challenging to help people who have the old type of Ukrainian ID, which hasn’t got a biometric link. Similar to issues faced in 2014 with the occupation of Crimea, birth registration is also difficult to establish in the occupied territories, as, often, other governments will not recognise documents provided by the occupying authorities. Since 2014, it is estimated that more than 40,000 children were not properly registered in the occupied territories. This is issue has only increased with the further occupation in recent months and poses significant risks of new cases of statelessness arising in the future.
Another major legal issue has been registering deaths. Local government is trying to control how to register people properly, but photos from Bucha and from Mariupol have shown there are graves in people’s own back gardens. I think the horror of these images accurately reflects what people have had to go through and the potential state of mind some people who come to us will be in. Therefore, we not only have lawyers and social workers in our organisation but psychologists to provide mental health support to both clients and staff. Of course, the situation for our colleagues in the occupied areas is even more challenging than what I describe here. At present, reaching people in the occupied areas is very difficult for us, but with time, I hope that we’ll be able to provide support to these communities again.
- Among a range of activities, the Tenth of April provides free legal advice and social assistance to stateless people. Can you tell us more about your work and explain what the main issues are facing stateless people in Ukraine?
The Tenth of April was created in 2012 by several lawyers with long-term experience working on human rights. We first worked with refugees and asylum seekers in Ukraine, providing legal aid, something we have continued to do since. However, when the number of internally displaced people rapidly increased in 2014 with the invasion of Crimea, we also started providing legal assistance to people who were internally displaced and expanding our work to also focus on community empowerment and fostering collaborative action.
In 2017, we started working with stateless people. At the time, the armed conflict in the East had resulted in a significant increase in the number of people at risk of statelessness. It was also at that time that we began our partnership with UNHCR on the topic of statelessness and joined the European Network on Statelessness.
At first, we worked on statelessness only in the Odessa region where our organisation’s main office is located. Later we expanded into other regions too, working with other organisations in Ukraine to try and identify ways to mitigate, prevent and end statelessness.
The legal system in Ukraine is built on the principle that a person first needs to prove their identity and then prove their legal stay in Ukraine in order to access rights. This directly impacts on people’s access to fundamental rights such as healthcare, higher education, and the labour market. For example, an undocumented mother of a new-born child faces a lot of obstacles in registering the birth and also getting legal recognition as the mother. Undocumented families won’t be able to access financial aid from the government if they don’t have proper documentation. Even more problematic can be accessing medical assistance. Families often rely on the discretion of medical practitioners in order to receive support.
Unfortunately, a lot of Roma people in Ukraine are undocumented and at risk of statelessness. Many Roma families have been undocumented for generations, which creates additional difficulties proving entitlement to Ukrainian nationality. Therefore, providing evidence in courts can seem almost impossible, requiring a complex investigation to prove the relationship between generations. NGOs may also be reluctant to support undocumented people as they are not funded to do so or don’t have the relevant expertise. This has been an issue for a while, and we are the only organisation providing assistance to undocumented people in the regions we cover.
- Last year, Ukraine introduced a statelessness determination procedure (SDP). What is your assessment of the new procedure, and how is the SDP operating during wartime?
For several years, we worked with colleagues to draft and push for new legislation to establish an SDP in Ukraine. Honestly, when it was established, it was a moment of personal achievement and pride for me, alongside my colleagues. Implementation was delayed while the by-laws needed to operationalise the procedure were developed, but since June 2021, the SDP has been available for applications.
While the introduction of the SDP is a significant step in the right direction, much work is still needed to effectively address the current challenges faced by stateless people in Ukraine. A lot of people who have reach out to us are not stateless but at risk of it, for example, people with USSR passports living in Ukraine at the time of dissolution of USSR, or people born in Ukraine to unknown parents who cannot prove their entitlement to nationality. Our aim is not only to identify stateless people, but also to help people in cases like this to confirm their nationality and obtain IDs.
At the end of 2021, an official report stated that throughout Ukraine more than 800 people had applied to the SDP, but only 55 final decisions had been reached. Our organisation, for example, supported 25 applications and only two received a positive decision by the end of the year. With the outbreak of war, the SDP procedure ground to a halt, because the government closed down access to the population registers access to which is needed to decide on SDP claims . In my view, this closure initially made sense to protect the personal data held in registers, but the State Migration Services now need to continue. In regions less affected by active conflict, some work has restarted, very slowly. Talking to colleagues this morning, four clients have had positive decisions on their applications and are now applying for residence permits.
We constantly monitor the SDP, and, at present, access to the procedure is mainly impeded by technical or administrative barriers. A major issue is the lack of staff within the State Migration Service. Government officials have shared with us that there isn’t enough information about the number of undocumented people in Ukraine so they cannot accurately judge how many professionals are required to support official procedures. Nevertheless, it is encouraging that we have such a system in place because compared to other procedures such as those connected to the courts, this one is much quicker. We hope these obstacles can be overcome with time.
- In this time of conflict, there is a greater risk of new cases of statelessness arising. Do you think the Ukrainian Government has emergency measures in place to address this issue?
Currently, we are in close communication with governmental bodies and non-governmental actors to address these issues. As this isn’t necessarily something new to Ukraine, there are some temporary mechanisms that have already been developed, but they need to be improved. For example, court applications regarding birth or death registrations in occupied territories take time. Due to the situation in 2014, we already have a simplified administrative procedure in place for registering births and deaths, but we still need to communicate these issues with our partners and with the Ukrainian Government. Compared to the situation in 2014, these issues aren’t as high on the Government’s agenda, so we are working with partners to try to make it more of a priority. Today is the 126th day of the conflict and we hope Members of Parliament are becoming more aware of and willing to address these risks.
- At ENS, we value hearing about your incredible work, despite facing both personal risk and uncertainty. This inspires all of us to try to do whatever we can to help. What kind of support does your organisation currently need? Where do you think your work will need to focus in the future?
Currently it is very hard to have long-term plans because we only find out what is happening on the frontline through daily news briefings, and the situation is constantly changing. There is a lot of different information being shared and it is hard to predict what will happen next.
Our organisation is currently hiring new staff to handle the increasing amount of work we are facing. We gain information from colleagues, partners, and beneficiaries in different regions of Ukraine who also seek our assistance. So, we are trying to respond and provide support in new parts of the country. There was such uncertainty when the first bomb fell on 24 February about what happened and what we could do. However, a few days later, the first evacuation trains came to Odessa, and we knew that our assistance was required at the railway station. Still to this day, my colleagues go to Odessa railway station and provide children arriving with emotional support and basics like food. When the Government started to register IDPs, we also knew our expertise would be needed in registration centres in order to support their applications.
So, when discussing our future plans, I suppose we will continue to monitor the situation, find what and where our assistance is most needed, and try to address those needs. Right now, for example, there are a lot of artillery strikes still happening in Mykolaiv, so we are planning to start providing emergency kits to help either create temporary accommodation or repair current buildings as much as possible. We don’t know what new issues will arise, but we will use our experience and motivation to find solutions to the situation at hand.
There are three main needs we have identified as essential: accommodation, nutrition, and medicine. If your readers are able to support our organisation, we would be very grateful and we are more than ready to cooperate. To do so, please feel free to get in touch with me directly.