Ukrainian men running from mobilization: An uncomfortable topic no-one wants to discuss

The article by Alina Mikhalkina was first published by Newsmaker in the end of 2023.  This edited version is being republished and edited for clarity on Global Voices with permission from Newsmaker

How to flee from Ukraine to Moldova” has been one of the most popular  searches on Google over the past two years. It’s not only women, children, and the elderly are fleeing the war in Ukraine, but also men of military age who cannot or do not want to fight. Men often choose to do it illegally. However, in the near future, their rights may be restricted, and they may be made to return to Ukraine.  

For decent money and absolutely legal’

Maxim (name changed), a 26-year-old sailor, like many other Ukrainian men of military age, “bought” his exit from Ukraine.

The war found him in Odesa, where he stayed until April 2023. In recent months, he hardly left the house fearing the officials from the Territorial Recruitment Center.

By President Zelenskyy's decree immediately following the Russian invasion, men of military age (from 18 to 60 years old) were prohibited from leaving the country. However, the decree itself does not explicitly forbid travel. “The decision is based on by-laws that pose corruption risks,” said Artem Sytnik, deputy head of the National Agency for the Prevention of Corruption.

There are some exceptions in these laws: men aged 18 to 60 can leave the country if, for example, they are accompanying spouses, children or parents with disabilities, if they are raising three or more children, or if they are seafarers with contracts on sea vessels. However, as Maxim claims, even those falling under these categories find it challenging to get permission to leave.

These laws also create a myriad of illegal schemes. Ukrainian intelligence services identify the organizers of such mechanisms on a daily basis, for exemple, a resident of Odesa, who ‘arranged’ fictitious marriages with women with disabilities (for $4500).

Individuals try to leave Ukraine through various means, including extreme ones. For example, some swim across the Dniester River or traverse forests, escaping wild boars. However, a larger number use the services of intermediaries to cross the Ukrainian border, including its Moldovan section.

Since the beginning of the war, about 15,000 Ukrainians have illegally crossed the border of Moldova, according to Ruslan Galushka, the head of the Moldovan Border Police. He stated, The average number of illegal crossings per day ranges from five to 25.”

Maxim used the intermediaries for help for decent money” and, in his words, absolutely legally.” He now lives in Chișinău and has a contract as a sailor.

‘They move further’

It doesnt matter how Ukrainian men crossed the border into Moldova, but their subsequent step is to legalize their stay in the country, typically by seeking asylum. According to Article 9 of the Law on Asylum in the Republic of Moldova, asylum seekers are not subject to consequences for illegal entry or illegal stay on the territory of the Republic of Moldova.

Moldovan authorities also cannot extradite them to another country, except in cases where there is a threat to Moldova. Consequently, following the outbreak of the war in Ukraine, the Moldovan asylum system experienced a collapse. Until February 24, 2022, approximately 100 asylum applications were filed in Moldova per year. In 2022, 11,218 citizens of Ukraine submitted such applications: 811 children, 1,424 women, and 8,983 men.

In the same year, 2022, the General Inspectorate made 6,682 decisions to halt asylum procedures for Ukrainian citizens, either by their own decision, or because applicants had already left the country. From January to October 2023 this number decreased to 5,738 decisions.

NewsMaker's source explained that usually Ukrainian men movefurther” and stop asylum procedures. Their final goal — EU countries. But some Ukrainians choose to remain in Moldova and apply for temporary protection documents (a status specifically introduced for Ukrainians that grants an annual right to residence, work, social and medical assistance).

How refugees live

A NewsMaker source who works with refugees notes that most men from Ukraine prefer not to openly discuss how they left the country: Journalists often come to different communities and ask if there are men who crossed the border illegally and are willing to speak anonymously. In most cases, they encounter an extremely aggressive refusal.”

Another NewsMaker informant from the humanitarian sector explains that Ukrainian men fear that after the adoption of a new mobilization law in Ukraine, they might lose temporary protection status in Moldova and face extradition to Ukraine. Programmers and sailors opt to remain in Moldova for obvious reasons: its close to home, and their relatives can visit them,” shares the source.

According to him, these men are the invisible segment of the Ukrainian community in Moldova; they remain isolated from their community and hardly integrate. Everyone keeps a packed suitcase ready in case they need to quickly leave Moldova,” the interlocutor adds.

‘No intention to push Ukrainian men into war’

There are two interlinked questions: the illegal entry of Ukrainians eligible for military service and the matter of mobilization. In this realm, the human rights approach to fundamental freedoms clashes with the army's needs, which been enduring losses for the past two years.

According to Politico magazine, Kyiv and Brussels are in discussions regarding the repatriation of Ukrainian refugees by 2025, coinciding with the expiration of the “Protection Directive for Refugees from Ukraine.”

In December 2023, Lauri Läänemets, the head of the Estonian Ministry of Internal Affairs, stated that, if necessary, the country's authorities are ready to assist Ukraine in mobilizing its citizens. However, he clarified that “the Estonian state does not intend to conscript Ukrainian men residing here for war.”

It remains uncertain what Moldova will do in this scenario, although the country is already extraditing Ukrainians who illegally crossed the border. One of the conditions for this extradition is that individuals are detained in the border area within 48 hours from the moment of secretly crossing the state border. It is crucial to note that none of the extradited Ukrainians have requested any form of protection. Had they done so, even in a conversation with border guards, extradition would have been impossible.

Vladimir Fesenko, a Ukrainian political scientist, told NewsMaker that a new mobilization law in Ukraine is under consideration. The main goal is to make the procedure more accurate, because the old rules failed.

According to Fesenko, restricting rights and freedom during wartime is a necessary measure: There are no ideal wars; war is a dramatic, tragic and dirty process in the literal sense of the word. This is a physical and mental ordeal for people. However, I would like to remind everyone that it is a war for the survival of the people and the state.”

‘Moldova cannot extradite asylum seekers’

Oleg Paliy, the head of the Moldovan Legal Center for Lawyers (CDA), explained that Moldova is bound by international obligations not to extradite any person who has requested asylum: “According to the 1951 Geneva Convention on Refugees, a refugee cannot be returned to a country where their life and freedom may be at risk.”

He also noted that the number of Ukrainian men in Moldova did not increase after the consideration of the mobilization law in the Rada [the Ukrainian parliament]: “If you look at the weekly reports of the General Inspectorate of Migration, there are ten times fewer such applications than in 2022.” For now, Ukrainian refugees can feel safe in Moldova.

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