“Thank God there’s no war but what will happen to us next?” asks an Afghan refugee woman living in Ukraine. She was interviewed by independent legal and socio-economic experts, who studied the situation of local integration of refugees in Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. In the course of the study, carried out within the framework of the Soderkoping Process, around 300 interviews with refugees, NGOs and authorities had been conducted in the three countries.

Belarus and Moldova acceded to the 1951 Geneva Convention relating to the Status of Refugees in 2001, followed by Ukraine in 2002. The efforts and achievements of the three countries in building up their asylum system are significant. The legislative frameworks, asylum institutions, structures and refugee status determination procedures are put in place. Since 1995 some 6,481 persons were granted refugee status in the region (799 in Belarus, 320 in Moldova and 5,362 in Ukraine).

However, the issue of integration of refugees in the three countries has been largely left aside. Recognizing this gap, in 2006 the Governments requested UNHCR’s assistance in the thorough examination of the situation and formulation of concrete feasible recommendations. The study took place in April-November 2007 and was finally presented to the Governments, refugees, civil society and donors in 2008*. It strives to analyze conditions for integration of refugees in the countries concerned and identify concrete gaps and obstacles in legal and socio-economic areas in allowing refugees to integrate in local communities. The recommendations of the study aim at developing national action plans for integration of refugees.Being very comprehensive, they cover most aspects of refugees’ life such as documentation, registration, access to education, employment, housing, social benefits and pensions, public health care, legal aid, naturalization.

“There is no one speedy recipe for integration”, say the authors of the study Mr. Oldrich Andrysek from UNHCR and Ms. Tarja Rantala seconded by the Ministry of Interior of Finland. “The success of integration does not depend on financial resources only; it also depends on the behaviour and thinking of officials, on understanding the concept of equality. And integration demands a capacity to adapt from refugees themselves.” The UNHCR Director of the Europe Bureau Ms. Pirkko Kourula and the UNHCR Director of Department of Operational Support Mr. Arnauld Akodjenou, who visited the region last month, emphasized the importance of implementing the study’s recommendations with a long term perspective and allocating state funding for integration needs.On behalf of the Governments, UNHCR Regional Office in Kyiv has developed and submitted a concept note to the European Commission to fund a series of initiatives on integration and to implement the recommendations of the study in 2009-2012.

Refugees do have the capacity to help themselves but they need at least a minimum of favourable conditions. These include facilitation of access to employment, housing, education, health and social services in conditions of non-discrimination. Special attention should be given to vulnerable persons and to those with special needs. Many of them struggle for survival. An Afghan refugee woman living in Ukraine said “I live in kitchen and I wake up almost every morning 3 am to bake pies, which I sell at the market…but this is the only way I can earn some money. My husband is disabled and cannot work”.

The overall business environment in the region is not very friendly. The World Bank report ‘Doing Business’ 2008 Moldova’s rank is 92, Belarus’ – 110, Ukraine’s – 139 (among 178 economies) on ease of doing business in these countries. “How can I find job in Moldova, if Moldovans cannot find job themselves”, asks a Syrian refugee living in Chisinau, Moldova’s capital.

Employment and housing are the biggest problem for the majority of refugees. Usually their salaries are lower while rent cost is higher, compared with local people. “It is difficult to rent an apartment for a family with many children, because people are afraid when they see so many children”, says Afghan refugee living in Belarus. His countryman adds “It is possible to make for the living but rent and propiska cost eats much money”.

Some government officials actually consider the presence of refugees in the region as unjustified or undesirable. Attitudes towards refugees vary from country to country. A refugee in Moldova confesses that in order to avoid discrimination he took the family name of his Moldovan wife. It would be certainly not enough in Ukraine – a Sudanese refugee says that “All Africans should go through plastic surgery (change colour of skin) to find job in Ukraine”. The study recommends the Governments to actively implement anti-discrimination and anti-racism policies and pursue awareness raising activities.

It is generally recognized that knowing the language of the host society is an essential element of integration. In Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine many refugees have a good command of Russian but face difficulties with official languages (Romanian and Ukrainian). Current small-scale language courses are usually organized by NGOs and financed by UNHCR. The study formulates five concrete recommendations to address the current gap and enable refugees to study local languages. UNHCR Regional Representative for Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine Simone Wolken suggests to the Governments to look into these recommendations on language training as a matter of priority, starting with making budget allocations for various level courses and involving professional teaching institutions in preparation of materials and curricula.

There are positive signs and prospects for refugees as well. The economic performance of Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine in the recent years is commendable. The economies require more human resources, while the demographic balance is negative (-0,6% in Belarus, in -0,9% Moldova and -0,8% in Ukraine) and according to some estimations, about 10% of Ukrainian and 25% of Moldovan nationals work abroad, mainly in Russia and the EU countries.

Some refugees in the three countries have managed to integrate. They are no longer dependent on help, quite to the contrary, they contribute to their host societies and provide support to less successful refugees. An Angolan refugee, working as an assistant manager responsible for two hotels in Kyiv, says that he encouraged and helped with employment of a dozen of African refugees. Despite the most common myth that refugees are a burden, they proved the opposite by paying taxes and creating working places. In Belarussian city Gomel a group of 15 Afghan refugees, who started their small business with help of UNHCR, in 2006-2007 paid some 55 thousand USD in taxes and around 40 thousand USD as salaries to other refugees and local persons. In Ukraine, refugees in Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa annually pay more than 700 thousand USD in taxes and social contributions.

It is crucial to always remember that refugees escaped persecution, often losing their families and houses. But they bring the hope and huge human potential and just need be given a chance to re-build their lives, proving that they are not the burden but the asset of the host societies

The article is provided by United Nations in Ukraine


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