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How Russians in Ukraine are fast becoming illegal immigrants

Tamara Kiptenko
October 1, 2022

When the war began, Ukrainian authorities stopped extending Russian citizens' residency permits. Since then, their status has become unclear and many face deportation. DW spoke with some of those affected.

A woman's hand holds up a Russian passport
Many Russians have built deep ties to Ukraine yet now may face deportation as a result of the warImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa/picture alliance

"I can't just sit here and wait to be deported to Russia," moans Maxim Pashchenko. A Russian, he is married to a Ukrainian wife and has lived in Ukraine for most of the time over the past few years. But when Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, immigration authorities stopped accepting documents from Russian passport holders. "Now I can't extend my residency permit," he explained.

Pashchenko is one of around 175,000 Russian citizens currently in Ukraine with a residency permit. Their status is regulated by immigration laws and rules, but Ukrainian authorities stopped extending those permits after the invasion. In some cases, Ukrainian authorities have even threatened deportation. Pashchenko confirms that he has friends who have gotten deportation stamps in their passports. He is worried if the same were to happen to him because he took part in opposition protests while he was still in Russia and today works as a volunteer collecting donations for the Ukrainian army.

Maxim Goshkovski also lost his residency permit and now faces deportation. He has been living in Ukraine — where he took part in the 2014 Revolution of Dignity, or Euromaidan Revolution — for more than 10 years. He has been in the process of finally becoming a naturalized Ukrainian citizen for the past eight. But to actually become a Ukrainian, he must first be released from his Russian citizenship and that is something that he has been unable to facilitate:

"I would have to travel to Russia to do it," he explained. "But I would land in prison if I did. I took part in the Maidan protests in Kyiv, I am an active volunteer in the Donbass, and I helped drag out the dead in Ilovaisk. I guarantee you, some sort of criminal charge has my name on it in Russia."

During the first days of the war, Pashchenko and Goshkovski were buoyed by news from Ukraine's immigration authorities, who declared that foreign nationals in Ukraine could, for the time being, "present expired documents." Relieved, Goshkovski went back to his volunteer work procuring tactical vests for Ukrainian soldiers. Yet in May, he was suddenly stopped at a checkpoint in the Poltava region and taken to immigration services for questioning. Just a few hours later, his passport bore a stamp ordering him to leave the country, either for Russia or another country. But instead, he chose to stay in Ukraine and appeal the decision.

Immigration uncertainty in Ukraine leads to a 'lack of legal security'

A hand holds a Ukrainian passport
Many Russians living in Ukraine have been waiting years to become naturalized citizens, now hope may disappear altogetherImage: Jens Büttner/dpa/picture alliance

According to Ukraine's immigration services, 635 Russians have received such stamps in their passports over the past six months. Xenia Prokonova, an attorney specialized in immigration law, said Ukrainian authorities are reacting as a result of this unexpected war. But, she alos says, there is now a grave lack of legal certainty when it comes to the relationship between immigrants and Ukraine's immigration services.

"Since the beginning of the war, Russian and Belarusian citizens have been unable to count on decisions from authorities, nor can they predict what problems might occur in their dealings with the state," said the lawyer.

Prokonova says she has received dozens of requests for legal assistance from Russians and Belarusians. The situation is different for each individual but the lawyer says it is clear that it has become nearly impossible for Russian passport holders to extend their residency permits or to become Ukrainian citizens. She argued that Ukrainian authorities should better regulate their relationship with Russian citizens rather than simply ignoring them.

Forcing Russians to hide creates 'risks for the country'

Replying to a query from DW, Ukrainian immigration authorities say they are waiting, "until parliament passes a law regulating how to deal with the citizens of an aggressor state." Until then, applications from citizens of the Russian Federation are not being accepted. Immigration authorities say they have submitted their own legal guidelines to the government in Kyiv for approval.

Lawyer Volodymyr Shbankov says that as long as there are no official rules, the state is turning such individuals into "illegal immigrants." That represents a risk for the country.

"It's logical to register such people for security purposes. They report to authorities of their own free will because they need something, and they will be subjected to every control and present everything they are supposed to, whatever is asked of them," Shbankov told DW. The lawyer added that immigration services' current approach was actually forcing such people into hiding, thereby endangering national security.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, stressed that Ukraine does not have a ban on asylum applications from Russian citizens. The UNHCR said it does not monitor other legal processes, such as the extension of residency permits, though. Nevertheless, the UNHCR admits that there are, "certain problems in accessing asylum procedures, as there are different practices at various regional immigration offices and several of these currently cannot operate at capacity due to the security situation."   

Maxim Pashchenko underscores the fact that he would really like to become a Ukrainian citizen. But if his problem cannot be fixed, he says he and his wife will be forced to move to another European country. If that happens, he adds, "Instead of gaining another Ukrainian, Ukraine will lose yet another citizen."

This article was originally written in Russian