On the agenda

The war in Georgia has highlighted two fundamental points. Ukraine’s choice is and must remain firmly directed at the fullest possible European integration.  And secondly, Ukraine’s stability and development as a law-based democracy is crucial for the stability of Europe itself.  Put most crudely, we are all in it together and urgently need to support one another.

Ukraine’s hosting on 4-5 September of the 8th Ministerial Conference of the Council of Europe on Migration is therefore most opportune.  The fact that the war has pushed almost every other subject out of the limelight may have been seen as convenient by certain Ukrainian officials.  Disappoint them, however, we must, since the reasons for public outrage are no less real and if anything made more relevant by the events of August.

On 28 July 2008 the Prosecutor General issued instructions to extradite a recognized refugee Oleg Kuznetsov to Russia.  Human rights organizations, chiefly the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, stated categorically that such arrogant disregard for a court ruling, domestic legislation and international law could not be tolerated.  We called for the Prosecutor General to resign or be dismissed as having placed Ukraine’s commitment to the rule of law in question and yet again shamed the entire country.

In February 2008, almost exactly 2 years after 11 asylum seekers were handed over to the Uzbekistan authorities, 11 ethnic Tamils were deported to Sri Lanka.  The Security Service [SBU]. the Ministry of Internal Affairs [MIA] and the Migration Service were all guilty of a number of infringements, but most fundamentally, showed wanton disregard for the principle of non-refoulement in returning people to a country where their lives could be in danger.

It is vital that the Ukrainian authorities understand once and for all that Ukraine’s laws and its international commitments must be observed scrupulously and that those responsible for such violations will be held to answer.  A demonstration of this would be the removal of Oleksandr Medvedko who, in ignoring a court ruling which had come into force and extraditing a refugee, has lost any right to hold the host of Prosecutor General

The conference this week will be focusing on economic migration.  Ukraine is, of course, both a country providing many migrant workers, as well as the destination, or very often, transit point for people from other countries trying to enter EU countries.  The reasons for the number of people from Ukraine seeking work abroad, and the need to ensure protection of their rights, do not need to be elaborated.

The role of Ukraine as a transit country, on the other hand, urgently requires attention from the EU which last year signed a readmission agreement with Ukraine according to which illegal migrants who entered the EU from Ukraine will be returned there. The agreement was reached despite the fact that Russia is in no hurry to sign a similar accord with Ukraine. Given the present strain in relations, movement in this direction seems even more unlikely, and since most of the people endeavouring to reach EU countries come via Russia, this problem is one Ukraine and the EU need to confront together. 

There is surely no EU country which has not experienced problems with xenophobia and general antagonism from those who view migrants as a potential threat to employment or their customary way of life.  These problems are now being confronted by Ukraine which for many historical and economic reasons is ill-equipped to deal with them.  It would be a tragedy if Ukraine, which for years had a relatively good record as far as pluralism and tolerance were concerned, should now be left to deal with rising racism and anti-migrant sentiments by itself.  The comments and advice made by international bodies and NGOs over the last year regarding increases in xenophobic attacks are justified.  However, it would be unwise to forget the considerable influence of racist gangs and ideology coming from other countries, most especially Russia (as if we don’t have enough of our own!).  When the reasons are clear and their consequences so bitterly predictable, then perhaps some more active assistance and support would be helpful.

One of the worrying symptoms of this rising intolerance has been the increasingly aggressive stand taken by high-ranking representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and some politicians. It is presumably true that the police see crimes being committed by gangs or individuals from certain countries. Difficult to check, since the statements or opinions expressed are usually vague. This does not unfortunately make them less frightening to the public, rather the contrary. The public statement made in the first week of the war by the Head of the Kyiv Police Force Vasyl Yarema regarding police readiness to ensure law and order in the light of a possible influx of migrants from the Caucuses due to the war were anything but constructive. Certain pronouncements by Gennady Moskal and to a lesser extent by the Minister of Internal Affairs, Yury Lutsenko, create the impression that all the problems confronting the country are caused by migrants. It should be stressed that such simplistic explanations do nothing towards solving the real problems while at the same time creating new and no less serious difficulties for an emerging democracy.

These problems and the need to break down pernicious stereotypes are not unique to Ukraine, but it is Ukraine which must confront them at a time of serious unrest and tension in the entire region.  Support for its efforts are vital, but so are harsh words where those in authority run roughshod over the rule of law and fundamental principles, in particular those regarding refugees. 

In times of trouble you stand together. Or you fall.

Halya Coynash

Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

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