Ukrainian refugees in Russia: Did Moscow fumble a valuable resource?

Russians have warmly welcomed more than a million pro-Moscow Ukrainian refugees in the past 18 months. But the state bureaucracy hasn't followed suit.

Dmitry Lovetsky/AP/File
People board buses as they depart as refugees to Russia in the city of Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, July 14, 2014.

Alexander Pyatkov fled his native Luhansk region in eastern Ukraine last year, just ahead of the advancing Ukrainian Army.

When the shelling of their city began, he took his wife and two daughters, one just four months old at the time, and drove across the Russian border, where they were briefly housed in a refugee encampment before being sent on to deeper Russian regions.

A skilled welder, Mr. Pyatkov has finally navigated Russia’s labyrinthine bureaucracy and recently found a good job in Moscow. He is bringing his family from the Volga area where they’d previously settled, and insists he has no plans to ever return to Ukraine.

“Ukraine is war-torn and impoverished, I don’t want my family to grow up there,” he says. “Things have been hard here, but they’re gradually getting better. People have been pretty good to us, and many say kind things when they hear where we've come from. We’re applying for Russian citizenship, and we’re starting a new life, in a new country, basically from zero.”

Over the past 18 months, Russia has taken in more than 1 million Ukrainian refugees like the Pyatkov family who have fled the destructive civil war between a West-oriented government in Kiev and Russian-backed rebels. The deluge is comparable to the wave of Syrians and others pouring into Europe – but it’s happened with very little publicity and even fewer apparent social strains.

A key reason for that is that most of the Ukrainians who’ve been streaming into Russia are Orthodox, Slavic Russian-speakers who tend toward a pro-Kremlin political viewpoint and who are welcomed, in theory at least, by President Vladimir Putin’s government.

But the Pyatkov family is still among the lucky few who’ve managed to obtain proper documents to live and work here. Others remain trapped in a corrupt, glacial immigration process that seems designed to keep migrants from central Asia in low wage jobs but without permanent status. While ordinary Russians have welcomed them warmly, many Ukrainian refugees say, they find it impossible to find legal work for which they are qualified.

Wanted: compatible refugees

Yet the Kremlin has consistently made the mass immigration of compatible Russian-speaking people from former Soviet republics a major part of its strategy for overcoming Russia’s looming demographic crisis. With peace possibly breaking out now in Ukraine, there are tentative signs of a reverse exodus, and experts say the window of opportunity to properly welcome and integrate this wave of ideal newcomers may be rapidly closing.

“It may have been what our authorities always said they wanted, but the sudden influx of over a million people was a huge headache for them, and they were in no way prepared for it,” says Dmitry Oreshkin, head of the Mercator Group, a Moscow-based think tank. “They’re not ready for it now, especially since Russia is in the midst of an economic crisis, so it seems that they are trying to discourage Ukrainian immigrants in practice, pressure them to go home, regardless of what official policy proclaims.”  

According to Russia's Federal Migration Service (FMS), 2.6 million Ukrainians live in Russia, more than half of them long-term “guest workers,” but about a million more who’ve arrived in the past 18 months fleeing next-door Ukraine.

Few Ukrainian refugees say they have received much help from the FMS, which processes and documents migrants. Many say they endure long waits for simple residency permits, a few hint that bribes have been demanded, and some have simply given up and ignored the need to obtain proper documentation.

As of September, according to the FMS, about 400,000 Ukrainians had applied for refugee status and almost 300,000 more have asked for temporary residence status. A further 600,000 are considered to be in breach of the rules entirely.

Making sense of Russian policy

“At first everything was sweetness and light, Ukrainian refugees were met with good camps and widespread public sympathy,” says Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civil Assistance, a nongovernmental group that aids refugees. “But soon the camps started to get closed down – there are presently only about 20,000 Ukrainian refugees living in state institutions – and authorities blocked them from moving to areas like Moscow or St. Petersburg, which have the best living standards and most available jobs.

“Even those who may have had relatives, friends, or opportunities in central cities got sent away to far-off areas,” even to Siberia and the Pacific coast, she says.

While the Russian government still makes an exception for some half-million Ukrainians who fled the active war zone of Donbass, it offers little sympathy to many who left Ukraine for political reasons or to evade the draft. Last month, the FMS ruled that all Ukrainians in Russia, excepting former residents of Donbass, must renew all their documents or face deportation.

“If a Ukrainian wants to come to Russia to work, the process of documentation is fairly straightforward. But if you left Ukraine because you opposed that [Kiev] government, there is no hope of attaining the status of ‘political asylum’ in Russia. I just can’t understand that,” says Larisa Shesler, a former member of the regional council in Nikolayev, a southeastern Ukrainian region, who lives in a temporary shelter near Moscow.

Many say it just doesn’t make sense that Russian policy hobbles the very Ukrainians who support the Russian point of view.

Demographic crisis

One possible reason is that Russia has never had a full public debate about immigration in general. Over the relatively prosperous Putin years, a corruption-ridden system allowed millions of Central Asian migrant workers to pour in to do work in construction and service industries that most Russians didn’t want, but left their rights ambiguous at best.

Some experts say Russian authorities are missing a critical opportunity to address the country’s dire demographic crisis by effectively discouraging Ukrainian immigration.

A report issued by the Civil Initiatives Committee, a think tank headed by former Russian finance minister Alexei Kudrin, says that in addition to being Russian-speaking and Russian-oriented, Ukrainian refugees also tend to be well-educated, often skilled workers, who could fill many looming gaps in Russia's economy.

But highly-qualified Ukrainians coming into Russia find it hard to get proper work documents, the report says. As a consequence, “experienced engineers and technical specialists find themselves working low paying jobs [often illegally] as cargo handlers or construction workers just to support their families and pay for temporary accommodation.”

Reverse exodus

With the cease-fire in eastern Ukraine holding well, and growing hopes that the Minsk peace process might at least freeze the conflict, there are reports that some refugees are heading home to take stock.

“These people represent valuable human capital, that Russia desperately needs,” says Vyatcheslav Postavnin, an expert with the group.

Despite being warned, Mr. Postavnin says, the government was not prepared for the wave of refugees.

“Our government spokespeople talk as if our system worked smoothly, and suggest that we could even teach Europe a thing or two about how to handle these problems,” he says. “But, in fact, we have failed them and ourselves badly.”

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