Human rights defender Svetlana Gannnushkina on the situation of refugees from eastern Ukraine

posted 30 Jun 2014, 07:58 by Rights in Russia   [ updated 30 Jun 2014, 08:01 ]
26 June 2014

Source: (info)
Russian federal and regional officials are giving radically varying estimates of the number of refugees from the conflict zone in eastern Ukraine. The data are so contradictory as to be not credible. According to Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the human rights organization Civic Assistance and member of the board of International Memorial Society spoke to Andrei Shary with regard to the refugees

I cannot state the exact numbers of refugees because quite a large number of Ukrainians entered Russia earlier in the hope that they might be able to find here not refuge but work, and most are in this category.

However, of course, the flow of refugees has increased considerably since that time. There is such variance in the estimated figures that it is very hard to say something with any certainty.

I am now looking at the statistics of the Federal Migration Service, and it turns out that slightly over one thousand people have applied for refugee status since the beginning of the year, and slightly over six thousand have applied for temporary asylum.

Why they don’t accept documents from those who came because of the war, because these people needed shelter, it is hard to say. Apparently, the State is unable to cope.

But at the same time, the Ukrainian situation has caused the first influx of people to which the Russian government is giving sufficiently serious attention and is endeavouring to help. The public supports the authorities in this regard.

I cannot call the influx of refugees from Ukraine "a humanitarian catastrophe", because even the greatest estimates of their numbers which have been cited (and which I don't really believe) are far less than the million people that Lebanon received from Syria, far less than that which Turkey took from Syria. Such a vast country as Russia can take in its brothers. Because to our country are coming people who do not just happen to be Russian speakers, but these are people who were actually born into the Russian language and Russian culture.

- Try to work out the numbers. Are there thousands of people by your estimates, or tens of thousands?

- I think tens of thousands. But the State has already estimated hundreds of thousands.

- Do you think that the State may not be able to cope with this problem. Maybe assistance is needed from non-governmental organizations working on the problems of refugees?

There is assistance of this kind being given. We are offering help to refugees. Although I must say that few people have turned up at our centres, but maybe that is because the authorities are already sufficiently actively involved with them.

However, people come to our organisation, and very active volunteers are working, even in Moscow. The Ukrainian crisis is a problem which brings together large numbers of people of different beliefs. A lot of volunteers collect food, clothes, money and many people are providing accommodation in their houses and apartments. However, in Moscow, I heard nothing about this, people had offered accommodation in a summer house somewhere out in the country, far from Moscow, although, of course, people are helping their relatives. While in other cities, such as Rostov, they are taken into the homes of total strangers.

-Is it possible to paint a typical portrait of a family of refugees? Is it the people who run from the Ukrainian authorities or from the separatists?

It is people fleeing war, people who are saving their lives and the lives of their children. It is mainly women and children. If the men remain, if someone is involved in an armed conflict, then, of course, they try to send women and children to safe places.

It is always like that. Refugees are people who are saving their own lives, regardless of beliefs. Of course, that part of the Ukrainian population which sympathizes with separatists, basically goes to Russia, while others go to Ukraine.

According to Ukrainian statistics, they have taken about forty thousand refugees from the eastern regions. We have, I think, in general, more refugees. Many of these people need psychological help, they are plagued by terrible rumours: yesterday I was hearing about "Jewish Freemasons", before that I heard that "American soldiers were taking everyone they came across as hostages". Of course, these are people who have been under great stress, but they are also the victims of their own weird interpretations of propaganda.

-By Russian propaganda?

Probably, basically by Russian propaganda, but also in conflict zones, as always, there are terrible rumours.

Today I spoke with a woman whose eyes were completely misted over and then she said something that I'm not going to repeat. When we switched to personal and family themes, there was an absolute transformation; people kind of go back to their old self. She writes poetry and she read me a wonderful poem of her own composition about love, in Ukrainian.

-In the conflict zone are there representatives of any international organisations? For example, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees?

In the camps, of course there are, it is their duty. They visit the camps in Russia, and I am convinced that they are in Ukraine too. Refugee camps can be very varied. They might often be in a guest house, or in a children’s holiday camp.

In Moscow, one volunteer commandeered a hostel where there were a lot of empty rooms, and moved people in there. In addition, there are camps run by the Ministry of Emergency Situations, but they, of course, are clearly not sufficient.

-Is there for the time being a sense that there is a seasonal element to the refugees presence in Russia? Do people expect that they will be able to return home before the onset of cold weather?

Yes, of course. The mood of the majority of these people is that they want to go back. But as for what they say about the statements made by the Ukrainian authorities ... I've searched on the Internet and cannot find anything of this.

People are getting worked up by the many baseless rumours that are rife, and of course this is very dangerous, since it makes the flow of refugees even bigger.

The human rights activist Svetlana Gannushkina was speaking to Radio Svoboda.

Translated by Graham Jones