Last week the Institute of Sociology of the Ukrainian National Academy of Sciences hosted the presentation of the book Unconventional Migrants in Ukraine . This book can be rightfully called objective, since it is almost entirely based on immigrants’ accounts of their life in Ukraine. Aside from the immigrants’ origin, the book sheds light on what made them come to Ukraine, the problems they face in daily life, education, and employment. Of special note are the data on Kyivans’ attitude toward immigrants. As suggested by opinion polls, a mere third of all Kyivans have come in contact with immigrants from Asia and Africa, while 49% of those polled believe immigrants contribute to a growing crime rate. Days before the presentation The Day interviewed one of the authors of the book, doctoral student of the Ukrainian State Management Academy Under the President of Ukraine Olena MALYNOVSKA.
“In your book you managed to paint a detailed demographic and social portrait of immigrants in Kyiv. What challenges did you face when working on the book and what surprised you?
“The main challenge was to find the people that were the target of our study and establish contact with them. It seems we have achieved the what we wanted: in most cases those we interviewed were quite open and, most importantly, eager to discuss their problems. Above all this is evidence that the immigrants who live in Kyiv suffer from a lack of communication. They even found some kind of assistance and support in the fact that we spoke with them.”
“Your interviewees were mostly people who have consciously chosen Ukraine as their new home. What are their motives and what attracted them to Ukraine?”
“A major reason is peace. Believe me, this is a weighty argument for those who escaped a war. Moreover, Ukraine attracts them with its attitude of tolerance toward foreigners. An Afghani woman told me that back at home she worked with specialists from Soviet Ukraine. Later, when she had to decide where to flee, she had no doubts: only to Ukraine, which, in her view, is home to hospitable and sensitive people.
“On the whole, our immigrants are very different. For some Ukraine is a conscious choice, while others ended up here as a result of a combination of circumstances. As a rule, such circumstances are directly connected with their country of origin. For example, migrants from China, Pakistan, and Vietnam are mostly guided by economic motives. Some migrants from Afghanistan studied in the USSR and could not return home after the collapse of the Soviet Union and toppling of the Afghani regime that lost Soviet support. Others fled from the Taliban years later.”
“Are there any estimates of economic benefits (or losses) resulting from the influx of immigrants into Ukraine?”
“As we know, the most common occupation for immigrants is selling goods at bazaars. There are two reasons for this. First, such an occupation does not require special training, and in this case the registration and taxation procedures are quite simple. Second, immigrants are as a rule barred from other fields of endeavor. Under the regulations in force, for an entrepreneur to hire a foreigner he must obtain permission from the employment authorities, which can give such permission only if there are no other citizen of Ukraine to be placed in this particular job. Moreover, such permission is not free of charge. As a result, an employer decides against hiring foreigners or hires them unofficially. Thus, it is not surprising that most of the immigrants whom we interviewed are working unofficially. An African man told me that when inspectors visit the enterprise he works at he has to hide. Incidentally, a dozen Ukrainians hide together with him.
“Incidentally, the requirement to obtain permission to hire a foreign employee makes the entrepreneurs among immigrants — at least those we spoke to during our study — reluctant to hire their compatriots. It is much simpler to hire Ukrainian workers. Thus, one can say that they create jobs for Ukrainians.
“As for trade, the benefits are obvious. For example, according to our estimates, of the 5000 sellers in Kyiv’s Troyeshchyna Market foreigners account for 1000. The market channels some fifteen million hryvnias to the city coffers annually. Simple calculation shows that three million comes from foreigners.”
“Perhaps the benefits would have been even greater if it were not for certain legislative complications in what concerns the naturalization of immigrants.”
“The law On Immigration was passed only two years ago. Migration laws have been drafted gradually. Even now they are incomplete. Meanwhile, now when old states have collapsed and been replaced by new ones people often found themselves in situations that have no legislative solution. There are problems even with repatriates, Ukrainians and Crimean Tatars, let alone Africans and Asians. For example, after the Soviet Union collapsed several thousand Vietnamese who worked in Ukraine under contracts between the Soviet Union and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam found themselves in a state of suspension. Under conditions of an economic crisis, when enterprises folded and unemployment soared, the Vietnamese lost jobs just like many Ukrainians, but nobody rushed to fulfill the contract terms under which the employers were to pay compensation to the employees laid off and pay for their return trip. As a result, many were forced to remain here. Consider another example: what should an African do, who had been sent to study in the USSR by the ruling party of his country that kept power only owing to the support of the Soviet Union. With the toppling of the regime he automatically became a political enemy. One of the interviewees told me that his brother, having completed his education at a Ukrainian university, decided to return to his native Congo. He was arrested in the airport and most probably executed. Even if it is safe to return, how can a person who has lived here many years and is raising a family, has a job and a home, return to one’s homeland, when all social ties have been long severed, and he knows nothing about the fate of his relatives.
“Often people cannot become naturalized for the simple reason that they do not have documents. They cannot have new documents issued, since there are no embassies of their respective countries in Ukraine. And even if they do exist in the post-Soviet space, then perhaps it is only in Moscow. To get there, one also needs documents. Meanwhile, immigrants often have their passports confiscated by the police. Thus when they catch an immigrant without a visa or registration they fine him. If he cannot pay the fine, his documents are confiscated. According to our interviewees, there were cases when people who came to the police precinct to pay the fine were told that their documents were missing.”
“In Russia, African students launched their own web site with a regularly updated news page. Notably, the crime watch column that reports misadventures that befell their African compatriots carries fresh daily reports. What progress has Ukraine registered in this direction?”
“We haven’t asked our interviewees whether they have ever been a victim of assault or another crime. We later wished we had asked them, since, unfortunately, we heard quite many stories of similar cases. It seems that today there are certain stereotypes surrounding foreigners in Ukraine. And this is not racism or targeted aggression, but plain ignorance. When we asked the immigrants why they face intolerance in society, they responded that the reason for this is the lack of positive information about them. What did we learn about the world in the Soviet period? Something from the Travelers’ Club [a weekly television program about exotic corners of the world that was especially popular in the Soviet period — Ed.], something from the students studying here, but even with them communication did not go farther than the campus. Today immigrants live next to us in our buildings, shop at the same stores, and go to the same doctors. And we simply must get used to this and learn more about other people, their traditions and culture. Instead, we read articles with the headings like “Migration is a Time Bomb” or “Ukraine is Too Crowded for Ukrainians.” While the crime watch report mentions arrested drug peddlers from Nigeria, it does not mention the Ukrainian bandit they worked for. This breeds unfounded fear of migrants. Sometimes things get more extreme. For example, in 2002 a group running for seats in the Kyiv Council named themselves the Kyiv Fortress. Their leaflets pictured tanks and minarets against the background of St. Sophia’s Cathedral. They warned of a possible influx of millions of refugees from Afghanistan, shouted that Kyiv should not become another Kabul, and that we must defend our national values. Their attempt to win using anti-immigrant rhetoric failed. But since there was such an attempt it could as well be repeated in the future.
“Today it is very important for us to learn to treat immigrants the right way. Whether Ukraine becomes a truly democratic state depends on this to a great extent. Respect for people, their rights and freedoms admits of no exceptions. If one can violate them with respect to immigrants, one can do so with respect to one’s own citizens. It is worth noting that immigrants have been and will always be the most active and enterprising people, since migration is a daring choice, and those who dare migrate should possess certain traits of character, be educated, and physically strong. Therefore, immigrants are an additional factor of development. Considering Ukraine’s demographics it is not ruled out that in the immediate future it will become a needful factor. Thus, today we must foster tolerance in society and develop the state system of regulating and controlling immigration. Then foreigners who have found themselves in Ukraine by some chance of fate will be able to work and lead a normal life.”