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How men try to get around the ban to leave Ukraine

Irina Chevtayeva
July 19, 2022

Most Ukrainian men have been banned from leaving the country. Increasingly, however, men who want out are finding ways, often at a price.

Border crossing between Ukraine and Poland, sign reads Ukraine, cars line up, several road signs
Border crossing between Ukraine and Poland Image: Leon Kügeler/BMEL/photothek/picture alliance

Anton (name has been changed) was a businessman in Ukraine. On February 24, he drove to the border with his wife and their two children to escape the Russian invasion. The trip, which usually takes only a few hours, took them almost the entire day.

But while they were still en route, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy banned men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country.

That meant Anton's wife and children were allowed to leave for the EU, while he stayed behind — and immediately began to look for ways to reunite with them. "Duty to the family had priority," Anton said. He drove to a village on the border with Romania, aiming to cross the Tisza River. "We were several men. But locals betrayed us and we were caught. We didn't even make it to the river," Anton told DW, adding that he later heard that smugglers usually take four people to the river for $5,000 (€4,930) each and show them where to cross. Anton was drafted into the army on the spot, but there was no suitable assignment for him so he returned home and made new plans to leave.

Tips found on social networks 

The ban on leaving the country does not apply to single fathers, men who have three or more children, and people with disabilities. Students of foreign universities, drivers of humanitarian aid transports, as well as persons with permanent residence abroad are also exempt from the ban.

Some men who fall into neither of those categories but want to leave Ukraine choose the route via Crimea, which was annexed by Russia. Others enroll in a foreign university, find a job as a volunteer emergency aid driver or try to cross the so-called green border on foot.

Social networks offer various tips. The Instagram account "Departure for Everyone" has more than 14,000 followers. Private chats share information on how to retroactively enroll in a Polish or other European university — showing a date before the start of the war — within ten days for €980.

Hands holding a mobile phone and a passport
Ukrainian refugees at the Polish borderImage: Abdulhamid Hosbas/AA/picture alliance

'Men like me are called traitors'

Anton managed to leave Ukraine with the help of a charity foundation run by friends. "The foundation applied for an exit permit. We all drove, and the cars returned to Ukraine with humanitarian aid, but I stayed in the EU. Men like me are called traitors," he said. "I'm not afraid of the front, and if I didn't have children I would have been there long ago. But we didn't have children so that my wife would have to survive somehow alone with them," he added.

There seems to be quite some interest in leaving the country. "Legal Move Abroad," a Telegram channel, has more than 53,000 followers and its backup channel, "Help at the Border," has more than 28,000. For $1,500, the latter offers a certificate exempting a person from military service for health reasons. Another offer involves leaving the country ostensibly as the driver of a humanitarian aid truck. Allegedly, this allows ten men a day to get out of the country, at a price of $2,000.

Telegram also posts reviews by people who allegedly used those services: "I went as a helper, everything went faster and easier than I thought"; "Thank you for helping my son, he is now in Italy"; "I have arrived in Bulgaria, I am grateful." DW wrote to several of these users, but only one responded, saying he did not want to "risk anything or tell anything."

Most Ukrainian refugees in Poland, Germany

More than nine million Ukrainians have fled abroad since February 24, according to the UN. DW asked Ukraine's border control service how many men are included in that figure but has not yet received an answer. The Ukrainian Interior Ministry reported on March 1, that some 80,000 military age males had returned to the country, most of them after February 24, "to defend sovereignty and territorial integrity."

Poland and Germany have taken in the most refugees. Poland counted 3.6 million, including 432,000 men aged 18 to 60, between February 24 and June 7. In Germany, 867,214 refugees were registered from the end of February to June 19. According to a March survey commissioned by the Federal Interior Ministry, 48% of the arrivals were women with children, 14% were single women, 7% were men with children and 3% were men who arrived alone.

A petition and many bribes

In May, Odesa lawyer Alexander Gumirov launched a petition demanding Kyiv lift the ban on men traveling abroad, and calling instead for the recruitment of volunteers. In just a few days, the petition gathered 25,000 signatures, which meant the president had to review it. Volodymyr Zelenskyy's response: the petition should be addressed to the parents of soldiers who died defending Ukraine.

Gumirow still considers the ban pointless. "If a person wants to defend his free, beloved native country, his home and his family, there is no need for a ban on leaving," he said, adding that a ban is unnecessary, too, if people don't want to defend their home.

Alexander Gumirov, man smiles into camera with the seaside in the background
Alexander Gumirov submitted a petition to allow men to leave Ukraine to the president Image: Privat

Many men in Ukraine currently cannot find work, cannot feed their families nor do they pay taxes, according to Gumirov. In addition, he says, the ban leads to corruption. He says he receives daily inquiries about possible loopholes to get around the ban, adding that every one comes accompanied by a bribe offer.

Dmytro Busanov, a lawyer from Kyiv, said that according to the constitution, restricting the right to leave Ukraine can only be regulated by law, which has not been done so far. He considers the current ban illegal. "I get a lot of complaints, but people don't want to sue in court," Busanov said. He said he believes it would be possible to take the issue to the European Court of Human Rights.

Too few volunteers

Ukrainian men who travel abroad are often condemned by the wives of men who are fighting, said a Ukrainian lawyer who wishes to remain anonymous. Her husband volunteered to be on the front lines. She said she supports Gumirov's petition in principle but that it was worded incorrectly — it implies people can all just leave and "let volunteers fight. That is unfair." There are too few volunteers, said the lawyer, who is currently in the EU with her children. Her husband wanted to take up the fight, but he also wants to see his children, she said. She suggests granting soldiers short leaves and allowing them to travel abroad.

Anton, has since settled in an EU country with his wife and children. He is learning the language and looking for a job. He does not rule out returning home should Ukraine win the war. "In peacetime, I've always said that Ukraine is one of the best places to be." He is a patriot, he says, adding he wants the war to end as soon as possible. "I send money to the army," Anton says. "We are far away, but that doesn't mean I'm a traitor."

This article was originally written in Russian.