Russian-Origin Muslims in Ukraine
Russian-Origin Muslims in Ukraine
Ukrainian Muslims celebrate Eid al-Adha in the mosque Ar-Rahma, in Kiev, Ukraine, 12 September 2016. Oleg Pereverzev / NurPhoto via AFP
Special Coverage

Russian-Origin Muslims in Ukraine

Muslims from Russia have long sought better lives in Ukraine. Fears of Islamist militancy and crime have lately made asylum unduly difficult to obtain. Kyiv should make sure its procedures are fair and double-check extradition requests it gets from Moscow.

What’s new? A small but steady flow of Russian-origin Muslims to Ukraine is drawn by an existing migrant population and familiar languages and cultures. Having fled Russia for political or religious reasons, many have found a better life in Ukraine, while others live on the margins, fearing deportation.

Why does it matter? Ukrainian authorities have vacillated between welcoming Russian-origin Muslims and viewing them as potential threats. These tensions appear to play out in the way some migrants’ cases are treated in the asylum and criminal justice systems.

What should be done? Kyiv should work with international partners to ensure that Russian-origin Muslims and other immigrants are fairly vetted in the asylum system and protected against deportation or extradition based on false claims or into the hands of foreign governments that may subject them to abuse.

I. Overview

Muslims from Russia have been relocating to Ukraine for centuries, with substantial inflows in the 19th century and throughout the Soviet period. Over the last 30 years, the country has been an appealing destination for people fleeing war in the North Caucasus, seeking opportunity or escaping circumscribed lives in Russia. For the most part, Russian-origin Muslims are integrated into Ukraine’s existing Muslim and multi-ethnic communities, while also maintaining unique networks based on place of origin, ideological leanings and related factors. But for some migrants, including those who have overstayed their visas, or who are wanted for extradition to Russia, sometimes on dubious grounds, the situation is more tenuous. To better serve these people, Kyiv should take additional steps to assure their fair treatment in its asylum and immigration systems, while taking care to vet accusations of jihadist or criminal ties it receives from Moscow.

Because Ukrainian laws are more tolerant of non-mainstream Islamic groups that Russia has banned, such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Ukraine has become a magnet for members of these organisations. A number of affiliates of such groups who previously lived in Crimea have relocated to mainland Ukraine since Russia annexed the peninsula in 2014. Ukraine has also recently attracted hundreds of Russian-origin Muslims who first sought to settle in European Union countries or Turkey, but later moved on, due to pressure from local authorities, distaste for the host nation culture or other reasons. Some of these people fought or lived in parts of Syria and Iraq controlled by the Islamic State, or ISIS, and have made their way to Ukraine in part to avoid imprisonment elsewhere.

The legal status of recent arrivals, who number in the hundreds per year, tends to be precarious. Most arrive with their Russian passports, which let them stay in Ukraine for up to three months visa-free. While some apply for asylum or refugee status, Ukraine has very low rates of approval for either, with thousands of people from all over the world awaiting adjudication and only some 100 per year receiving it. As a result, those who want to stay need to legalise their presence, and some turn to fraud (eg, in marriage or employment) to do so. Those who run afoul of the law risk deportation or, if wanted by Russian authorities, extradition to Russia, even as both human rights organisations and Ukrainian nationalists decry cooperation with Russian security services, the latter protesting any engagement with Ukraine’s antagonist in the Donbas war.

The situation is complex: many of those Russia has sought to have returned are, indeed, culpable, including as members of insurgent organisations that are designated as terrorist (eg, ISIS or the Caucasus Emirate) and criminal groups. Some, however, are on Russia’s lists erroneously or for apparently political reasons.

Ukraine, for its part, at first welcomed people who had fought Russia in the North Caucasus insurgencies. Kyiv saw in them natural, and experienced, allies in its own war with Moscow. But as Ukrainian authorities have grown more concerned about migrants’ possible alignment with Islamist militancy, they may have become more likely to trust Russian information on these matters (if not on others).

Many problems [of the Russian-origin Muslims in Ukraine] would be resolved with a more robust and responsive asylum and immigration infrastructure.

Ukraine’s challenges are, to a great extent, related to capacity. Many problems would be resolved with a more robust and responsive asylum and immigration infrastructure. Others might be mitigated if the authorities were more diligent as they assess and prosecute criminal cases and consider extradition requests. Ukraine’s international partners should support its efforts to improve in both areas. 

This analysis is one of a series of Crisis Group publications that explore the origins, evolution and status of the Russian-origin Muslim population in Ukraine, Turkey, Georgia and Western European countries (with a focus on Germany, Austria and France). The series draws on well over 100 interviews, virtual and in person, with migrants, authorities, civil society figures and experts in destination and transit countries as well as in Russia. It pairs insights from these interviews with data gleaned from academic literature, media reporting and NGO accounts. It also benefits from Crisis Group’s years of fieldwork in many of the countries concerned, including Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Turkey. 

II. Geography

Ukraine today boasts a variety of Muslim communities, which include recent immigrants from the North Caucasus and central Russia who have settled in the capital Kyiv, Odesa (on the Black Sea), Dnipro (in eastern Ukraine), Lviv (near the Polish border) and elsewhere. The two places where Ukraine had the largest Muslim populations before 2014, Crimea and Donbas, have not been draws for Russian-origin Muslims in recent years.[fn]Crimean Tatars were violently repressed in the 1940s and forced into exile, mainly in Central Asia. Many died or were murdered en route. Although return became theoretically possible after 1967, mass repatriation took place only in the 1990s. According to a Russian government census conducted soon after Moscow annexed Crimea, as of 2014, “Crimean Tatars” made up about 10 per cent of the peninsula’s population and people who identified as “Tatars” but not “Crimean Tatars” an additional 2 per cent, for a total of just over 270,000 people combined. Oleg Gabrielian and Vadim Petrov (eds.), Crimean Repatriates: Deportation, Return and Resettlement (Simferopol, 1998), p. 152 (Russian); “Results of the Population Census in the Crimean Federal District”, Federal State Statistics Service, 2015 (Russian).Hide Footnote Crimea, which has historically had Ukraine’s most active and diverse Muslim community, dominated by indigenous Crimean Tatars, has been annexed by Russia. It has since seen some migration of Muslims to mainland Ukraine.

Donbas, where Volga Tatars from Russia migrated during the Imperial and Soviet periods, drew some Russian-origin Muslims temporarily, to fight in the war in eastern Ukraine.[fn]The 2001 Donetsk Oblast Census (Russian), compiled by the State Statistics Committee of Ukraine, listed 19,200 Tatars.Hide Footnote But the vast majority of those who fought alongside Russian-backed separatists appear to have returned to Russia, while those who fought as volunteers in support of Ukraine and stayed have tended to settle farther west, in areas firmly under Ukrainian government control.[fn]Two volunteer battalions comprising predominantly Russian-origin Muslims fought for Ukraine: the Djokhar Dudaev Battalion and the Sheikh Mansur Battalion. These informal units were supported, like others, by a range of private funds from around the world (including the European countries from whence some of the fighters had come), but mainly by Ukrainian “volunteer” operations. One unit remains, although minimally staffed, but is in no way formally recognised by the Ukrainian government. Crisis Group interview, Muslim Cheberdoevsky, commander of the Chechen battalion, Kyiv, December 2020. On the small number of Russian-origin Muslims who fought the government of Ukraine and settled down in the self-proclaimed Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics, see “Kadyrovtsy in Donbas: ‘They say the Chechens’ favourite business is lawlessness: During the deportation of Chechens from the “DPR”, two were killed in the centre of Donetsk”, Censor.net, 24 September 2017 (Russian).
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A substantial number of the immigrants come from Dagestan. As of 2014, according to Kamil Zakar’ev, who held a formal role representing the Russian region in Ukraine at the time, there were some 27,000 people of Dagestani origin in Ukraine. This total included both people who had lived in Ukraine since the 1980s and those who had come more recently, fleeing fighting in their home region. Zakar’ev noted that they lived throughout Ukraine, though mainly in the south east, in Donetsk, Kharkiv, Luhansk, Dnipro and Odesa, with perhaps 2,000 residing in Kyiv.[fn]We are 27,000 in Ukraine”, Molodezh Dagestan, 22 March 2014 (Russian).Hide Footnote

The largest Muslim community in Ukraine outside of Crimea is in Kyiv. Ukraine’s capital is often the point of entry for new arrivals, and a good many stay in the city and its environs. Sheikh Akhmad Tamim, mufti of the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Ukraine (DUMU), one of several Ukrainian Muslim organisations, estimates that some 100,000 practicing Muslims live in Kyiv alone. Many new Muslim migrants from Russia and elsewhere have settled in Chaiky, a suburb east of the city centre. The area boasts a mosque and a wide range of shops and restaurants featuring halal products. Immigrants from Chechnya, Ingushetia, Dagestan and the Volga region also often gather at halal restaurants downtown.

Outside of Kyiv, Muslims tend to concentrate in metropolitan areas. In Dnipro, a community of ethnic Tatars and others from central Russia who moved to Ukraine during the Soviet period has now been supplemented by displaced persons of the same background who fled the war in Donbas, Crimeans who left the peninsula after annexation and migrants from Russia, among others.[fn]How do Muslims of Dnipro live”, Informator, 19 January 2021 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Odesa boasts a small but active Chechen community, with tight links to local authorities. Salman Sadaev, who headed the Chechen People’s Diaspora Foundation, told the Russian newspaper Kommersant in 2012 that there were perhaps 3,000-5,000 Chechens total in all of Ukraine.[fn]Salman Sadaev: ‘We want to stay Chechen in Ukraine’”, Kommersant, 4 May 2012 (Russian).Hide Footnote An Odesa-based migrant told Crisis Group, however, that the community in that city alone was 1,000-families strong.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from throughout the North Caucasus, Odesa, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote In addition to new immigrants from Russia, notably Dagestan, Odesa also has a substantial international Muslim population, including some 6,000 people from Afghanistan and many from Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from the North Caucasus, Odesa, April 2019.Hide Footnote A 2013 media report cited estimates for the city’s total Muslim population as ranging from 30,000 to 50,000 people.[fn]Eid al-Adha: Odesa Muslims slaughtered 110 sacrificial sheep”, Dumskaya, 16 October 2013.Hide Footnote

Odesa has a long history of welcoming Muslims from Russia: in the 1990s, Chechens found a particularly warm reception in the city because then-Mayor Eduard Gurvits had ties with Vakha Arsanov, vice president of the self-proclaimed Chechen Republic of Ichkeria, and other Ichkerian leaders.[fn]A passive city”, Kommersant, 12 February 2018 (Russian). Crisis Group interview, World Chechen Congress organiser, Vienna, November 2019Hide Footnote Gurvits offered safe haven to those seeking it, including injured fighters and their families as well as other refugees, although the influx later resulted in some critics saying he had brought “the Chechen mafia to Odesa”.[fn]Chechen OCG”, Ukraine Criminal, 21 April 2004 (Russian).Hide Footnote The World Chechen Congress was held in Odesa in 1996.

Lviv’s Muslim community has also been bolstered by recent arrivals from Crimea who, in turn, have served as magnets for migrants from Russia. The Lviv airport, moreover, has become a hub for people arriving from Turkey and elsewhere. Lviv’s proximity to Poland, like Carpathia’s to Slovakia and Hungary, also draws migrants, generally from Russia, hoping to travel illegally to the European Union.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Chechen community representatives, Vienna, November 2019.Hide Footnote

Kharkiv, known for its universities since the Soviet period, had long attracted students from the North Caucasus and farther away, including Arab countries. Today, locals estimate that the city has more than 50,000 Muslim residents, of whom a sizeable minority (several thousand) are recent migrants from Russia.[fn]For God’s reward: Islamic community helps orphanages and hospitals, without advertising their affairs”, Kharkiv Today, 3 October 2016 (Russian).Hide Footnote

III. Ideologies, Schisms and Connections

As the above discussion indicates, Ukraine’s Russian-origin Muslim immigrants form part of a large and diverse Muslim community. Aside from representing a wide range of ethnic and national backgrounds, with immigrants not just from Russia, but from the Middle East, Afghanistan, Turkey and elsewhere, Ukrainian Muslims espouse a range of approaches to faith, from secularism to fundamentalism. Some ideologies have deep historical roots in the area; others are more recently imported, whether by students from the Middle East who came to study in Kyiv or Kharkiv, or by Ukrainians who had studied abroad. A number of different organisations and centres unite mosques, community groups and study circles around the country. There are seven Muslim muftiates in Ukraine, differentiated by ideologies, leaders and other factors, and thus no single recognised leader of Ukraine’s Muslim community.[fn]Teymur Ataev, Islam in Ukraine: Past, Present, Future (Kyiv, 2018), pp. 171-173 (Russian).Hide Footnote Mosques here, as elsewhere, find creative ways to serve a wide variety of worshippers, for instance with prayers read in Arabic and sermons in Russian.[fn]“For God’s reward”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Many Chechens in Ukraine have historically aligned themselves with DUMU, which follows Khabashi teachings and operates a publishing house, under the Al-Rakhma label.[fn]Salman Sadaev: ‘We want to stay Chechen in Ukraine”, op. cit. Khabashism is a strand of Sufism founded in the mid-1980s by Ethiopian preacher Abdullah al-Harari.Hide Footnote Prior to the start of the Donbas war in 2014, Sheikh Akhmad Tamim, a mufti of the DUMU, also maintained some links to the Kadyrov government in Grozny, although if such ties continue they are now kept comparatively quiet.[fn]While denying ties with Ramzan Kadyrov, Mufti Akhmad Tamim has praised the Chechen president for combating “Wahhabism”. He also noted that he knew Kadyrov’s father and shared his views on fighting extremism. “Sheikh Ahmed Tamim: Ukraine has recently been trying to turn into a base for recruitment into extremist groups”, Gordon.ua, 4 January 2019 (Ukrainian); Anvar Derkach, “The head of the Chechen diaspora in Ukraine was identified as a crime boss from the ‘90s”, RFE/RL, 6 May 2018 (Russian); “Salman Sadaev: ‘We want to stay Chechen in Ukraine”, op. cit.Hide Footnote In Kharkiv, many Chechens are affiliated with the Salafi Al-Sunnah mosque and others from Chechnya and Dagestan frequent the DUMU-affiliated Al-Barakah. Migrants from Russia also attend services at Kharkiv’s four other mosques and Islamic cultural centres.[fn]Kharkiv’s Grand Mosque Fatima”, Islam in Ukraine, 21 April 2016 (Ukrainian). Crisis Group interview, Artur Yakubov, head of Sunnah NGO, Kharkiv, 25 March 2021.Hide Footnote

A substantial number of Russian-origin migrants have affiliated themselves with the Al-Raid Islamic Centre and its associated UMMA association (not to be confused with the publishing house noted above, which is often referred to as Ummah), led by Said Ismagilov, an anti-separatist who fled Donetsk in 2014. UMMA was an active supporter of the Maidan protests and movement that led to the collapse of the Viktor Yanukovych government in 2014.[fn]Ataev, Islam in Ukraine, pp. 327-338.Hide Footnote

Other Muslim organisations in Ukraine include the Spiritual Administration of Muslims of Crimea, directed by Aider Rustamov, and the Association of Muslims of Ukraine, founded by Suleyman Hairullaev. The latter unites mainly Salafi communities from Crimea and members of Hizb ut-Tahrir.[fn]Khamza Karamioglu, “The new muftiate: Correcting the mistakes”, RFE/RL, 22 November 2016 (Russian).Hide Footnote Both organisations have grown as a result of new immigrants. In Kyiv, both DUMU- and UMMA-affiliated mosques draw many new immigrants, while those with Salafi leanings usually attend a mosque in the Nyvky neighbourhood.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Ismagilov, the aforementioned mufti of the Religious Administration of Muslims of Ukraine, described pre-annexation Crimea in particular as a “cauldron” of different Muslim perspectives. “In Crimea, there were whole villages of Salafis or Madhalites. Supporters of Hizb ut-Tahrir were widespread. Gülenists, Nursi-ists and Khabashis were well represented, too, of course. ... And at the same time, the traditional muftiate was also trying to work there ... to lead people away from extremes and radical things”.[fn]Madhalism is a branch of the Salafi movement within Sunni Islam. By Nursi-ists, Ismagilov meant followers of the teachings of the late Kurdish Sunni Islamic scholar from Turkey, Said i-Nursi, who was active in the early and mid-2oth century. Gülenists are affiliated with Fethullah Gülen, the Turkish cleric self-exiled in the United States. Turkish authorities allege that his followers infiltrated state institutions and orchestrated a 2016 coup attempt.Hide Footnote He clarified: “I mean radical not in the sense of violence; in Ukraine this does not exist at all. In Ukraine there wasn’t such a phenomenon like in the Caucasus, where there were some mujahideen – we did not have them and, God willing, will not”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Said Ismagilov, Kyiv, September 2019.Hide Footnote

If other parts of Ukraine have welcomed new migrants from Russia, since annexation, Crimea has seen its Muslim population shrink. One reason is that people affiliated with Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is illegal in Russia, as well as Salafis and other Islamists, have moved to mainland Ukraine.[fn]Hizb ut-Tahrir had about 1,500 adherents in Crimea prior to annexation. “Islam under occupation: How the religious life of the Crimean Tatars changed after the annexation”, Krymsos, 23 June 2015 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Dnipro reflects the same mosaic, albeit on a smaller scale. A community member who emigrated to Ukraine from Dagestan, where he faced pressure from authorities due to his membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir, told Crisis Group: “Unlike in Russia, there is more than one Spiritual Administration of Ukraine. ... [In Dnipro], there are the Salafi Association of Muslims of Ukraine, Al-Raid, the Khabashi [community], Hizb [ut-Tahrir], there is a Tatar Mejlis. ... There are [even] Dagestani Naqshbandis in Dnipro”.

The city’s only official mosque, he told Crisis Group, was founded by Dagestanis who came to Dnipro in their student days. The imam is an ethnic Avar from Azerbaijan. But the mosque is officially considered to be Sufi, rather than Dagestani, to avoid association with Russia – a result of the Donbas war. While they lack a formal mosque, as of 2019, Dnipro’s 150 or so Salafis attended prayers in a building owned by a Ukrainian citizen of Azerbaijani origin, and another hundred or so attended a prayer house tied to Al-Raid/Ummah.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Dnipro, August 2019.Hide Footnote

When it comes to place of worship, Odesa Muslims seem to divide themselves by place of origin: two mosques serve the Afghan community, with a third planned.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Afghan migrant, Odesa, September 2019.Hide Footnote Another mosque is predominantly filled by those from Turkey.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Odesa, April 2019.Hide Footnote Yet another is described by locals as Dagestani. A Chechen-origin imam leads the local Khabashi mosque.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Dnipro, August 2019.Hide Footnote

Lviv and its environs have become a centre for Hizb ut-Tahrir affiliates. Many members of this organisation relocated to Lviv from Crimea after its annexation by Russia. Because Russia bans the self-defined global political party, Hizb ut-Tahrir activists and affiliates felt unsafe (and, indeed, those who have remained have faced prosecution). The resulting Hizb ut-Tahrir community in Lviv then welcomed members of the organisation arriving from Russia, as well. Following a similar logic, Salafi adherents have also tended to group in Lviv, drawn by a substantial community that has already been bolstered by an influx from Crimea. The Lviv Muhammad Asad Islamic Centre, affiliated with UMMA and Al-Raid, was established in 2015, as arrivals from the peninsula swelled the Muslim population.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Murad Suleimanov, imam of Islamic Cultural Centre, Lviv, April 2020.Hide Footnote

The vast majority of Russian-origin Muslims in Ukraine have no relationship to militant Islamism.

As elsewhere, the vast majority of Russian-origin Muslims in Ukraine have no relationship to militant Islamism. Some Russian citizens and others who had fought in Syria have nonetheless found their way to Ukraine camouflaged among peaceful migrants. One such former fighter told Crisis Group that there were several hundred people in Ukraine who, like him, had fought in Syria as affiliates of the Caucasus Emirate and other groups. This number includes former ISIS fighters as well as affiliates of groups opposed to ISIS.[fn]Crisis Group consultant’s interview in previous capacity, representative of Caucasus Emirate, Istanbul, 2016; and Crisis Group interview, representative of Caucasus Emirate, Istanbul, 2019. The groups referred to here include followers of Sheikh Abdul Kostekskii, a Caucasus Emirate leader who runs schools in Turkey. Kostekskii has a large following among Russian-origin Muslims in Ukraine. On the day after the murder of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who was killed by a man of Chechen ancestry in ostensible response to a classroom viewing of caricatures of the prophet Muhammad, Kostekskii released a video in which he described the killing as permitted by Islam and Paty as responsible for his own death. “Abdulla Kostekskii: On the defender of the honour of the Prophet Muhammad, ‘Salia-allahu, aleikhi va-salaam’”, video, YouTube, 21 October 2020. See also Crisis Group’s publication on Russian-origin Muslims in Turkey in this series.Hide Footnote

Migrants from Chechnya and others tied to the Kadyrov government are often in tension with those who came to Ukraine at least in part to flee Kadyrov and his people. A number of people linked to Kadyrov are active in Ukraine; some have entered as migrants and others as regular visitors. Even as they engage in ventures linked to, say, commercial real estate, their presence inspires fear among their compatriots.[fn]The ex-owner of Metrograd mall, Rus and Lybid hotels is wanted in Ukraine”, Interfax, 18 September 2018 (Russian); “Brothers Ltd.: An investigation on how Ramzan Kadyrov and Adam Delimkhanov make money”, Proekt Media, 14 July 2020 (Russian).Hide Footnote Reports that Kadyrov associates are responsible for murders and attempted murders in Ukraine (and elsewhere) date back to the 1990s. Recent allegations concern attempts to kill Adam Osmayev and Amina Okueva, and later Okueva’s actual murder, all in 2017.[fn]Osmayev and Okueva were a married couple who fought in the Donbas war on Ukraine’s side. Osmayev is from Chechnya and now has Ukrainian citizenship. Okueva was born in Ukraine. “Suspected in the murder of Amina Okueva are detained in Ukraine”, Deutsche Welle, 12 June 2020 (Russian); “By the nickname of Dingo: The killer who attacked Osmayev and Okuyev is connected to Kadyrov and carried a passport of a murdered Odesa citizen”, Dumskaya, 2 June 2017 (Russian).Hide Footnote Migrants report that Kadyrov’s networks in Ukraine have become more influential recently and more closely tied to national and local authorities.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, migrants from North Caucasus, 2020-2021.Hide Footnote As a result, community members are nervous and careful. One man told Crisis Group: “When people found out that I had emigrated from Russia, they came to me and said I should not even think that I am far enough away – ‘Don’t talk badly about Ramzan, because his people are here’”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Dnipro, August 2019.Hide Footnote

IV. Family Structures and Social Mores

As the discussions of geography and faith suggest, recent migrants from Russia in Ukraine tend to stick together socially, in tight-knit communities defined by ideology, ethnicity and place of origin, at least at first. As time goes on, they become more and more a part of broader Ukrainian society, Muslim and secular. Family relationships vary in part according to these same divisions.

The social organisation of these communities generally reflects that which existed in their place of origin – particularly with regard to family relationships and gender roles. For example, women coming from the North Caucasus, especially, tend to stay home and care for their children, even more isolated from broader Ukrainian society than the men.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Kyiv, February 2021.Hide Footnote Women from other parts of Russia are less sequestered, but their relative isolation was still a factor that limited, for example, Crisis Group’s ability to speak with many of them.

Strictly prescribed gender roles [...] can cause tension with other Muslims.

Strictly prescribed gender roles are also common among fundamentalist Muslims from all parts of Russia (and elsewhere). This practice can cause tension with other Muslims. An elderly Volga Tatar, who has been living in Ukraine since a young age, told Crisis Group that he did not understand and did not like how new migrants from Tatarstan, members of Hizb ut-Tahrir, treat their wives and women in general: “Husband and wife [should be] one stock, roughly speaking, they have united to live in peace and friendship, and not to put pressure on each other, to keep the wife at a distance in order to serve or cook food, because he is a man and everything is allowed to him”, he said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Tatar diaspora representative, Ukraine, 24 November 2020.Hide Footnote

People coming from the North Caucasus are more likely to practice polygamy, although it is illegal in both Russia and Ukraine. It is also highly rare among people of the “Soviet” generation (that is, over the age of 50). It is most popular among people who became more religious over time.[fn]“‘The institute of legalised lovers’: Why polygamy is becoming the norm in Northern Caucasus”, Current Time, 31 August 2018 (Russian).Hide Footnote Sometimes, a man will travel to Ukraine with a new second “wife” although the second marriage has no legal standing.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote The first wife and her children may follow later, or not, in part depending on how she feels about that second marriage.

First, legal marriages, especially, are usually arranged or semi-arranged by parents, relatives and acquaintances. People who seek polygamous marriages are more likely to go outside their family and close community networks, in part because they do not want people in those networks to find out. Some Russian-origin migrants marry outside their community.[fn]“‘The institute of legalised lovers’: Why polygamy is becoming the norm in Northern Caucasus”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In some cases, as discussed below, migrant men seek Ukrainian wives to establish legal residency and eventually citizenship. One Ukrainian official estimated that approximately six of ten marriages between Ukrainians and foreigners are motivated accordingly.[fn]Schemes of unlawful legalisation of foreigners in Ukraine”, Sudovo-yurydychna Hazeta, 25 July 2019 (Ukrainian); “The SBU has uncovered an unlawful scheme of foreigner legalisation in Ukraine”, Ukrinform, 16 November 2017 (Ukrainian); “The SBU counterintelligence stopped the activities of a group of officials who legalised foreigners unlawfully”, Security Service of Ukraine, 11 February 2021 (Ukrainian).Hide Footnote In others, Ukrainian women (and occasionally men) convert to Islam and join the community.[fn]How I became a Ukrainian Muslim”, Nakipelo, 20 September 2018 (Russian); “Personal experience: Becoming a Muslim and wearing a hijab in Ukraine”, Bzh Life, 18 April 2018 (Russian).Hide Footnote

V. Youth and Education

Youth of the second and third generation in longstanding communities of Russian-origin Muslims may be more integrated into Ukrainian society than newcomers. A man who had lived in Odesa after leaving Dagestan told Crisis Group: “All the Chechen youth that I saw [in Odesa] … were born and raised here. I have not seen newcomers at all. When you tell them about Russia, they don’t [understand] how things are at home. Especially about Kadyrov. ... Everyone grew up here. The first time I met Chechens without a Chechen accent. ... Pure Russian speech, with an Odesa accent”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Dnipro, August 2019. Russian is a commonly spoken language in Odesa.Hide Footnote

Most children of Russian-origin migrants in major metropolitan areas attend Ukrainian public schools.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Hizb ut-Tahrir member, Kyiv, 25 November 2020; Crisis Group interview, Dagestani-origin former owner of Islamic school in Kyiv, Kyiv, April 2021.Hide Footnote Few seem dissatisfied by this situation. In Kyiv, a Hizb ut-Tahrir member from Tatarstan said his daughter’s classmates are at most curious about the hijab she wears, adding that his family has faced no derision or discrimination.[fn]Crisis Group online interview, Hizb ut-Tahrir member, Kyiv, 25 November 2020.Hide Footnote But some more conservative parents may want more. For example, Salafi-identified Ukrainian citizens who relocated from Crimea to Vinnytsia, in mainland Ukraine, asked for gender-segregated classes in a public school to no avail. The school instead offered distance learning.[fn]“Islam under occupation: How the religious life of the Crimean Tatars changed after the annexation”, op. cit.; “A girl from a family of Crimean Tatars became a winner of the Ukrainian language Olympiad”, Westnews, 12 February 2019 (Ukrainian).
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A few Russian-origin immigrants to Ukraine have become prominent in local religious education.

As a result, some take educational matters into their own hands. Parents may choose to supplement formal schooling with religious education: a relatively small number of couples with substantial Islamic training and a command of Arabic offer gender-segregated tutoring for boys and girls.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan who teaches Arabic and Islamic jurisprudence, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote A few Russian-origin immigrants to Ukraine have become prominent in local religious education. Dagestani immigrant Abakarom Abakarov ran a school for Muslim youth in Odesa, called Khadzhibei, from 2017-2019. The school, which dispensed Islamic as well as secular education, found itself the subject of press reporting in Russia (also read in Ukraine) that suggested it was “spreading extremism”.[fn]Is Odesa a ‘sanatorium’ for radical Islamists?”, Ritm Evrazii, 29 October 2019 (Russian).Hide Footnote

In 2020, Abakarov shifted his attention to Kyiv, where he launched the Eagles Sport School. The program offered adolescent boys a mixed secular, Islamic and athletic curriculum. Abakarov told Crisis Group that the school attracted a range of migrants to Ukraine who seek, according to him, to raise their children with Muslim values. In addition to those from Crimea and Russia, his twenty to 30 Kyiv pupils included the children of Russian-origin migrants who have come to Ukraine after living in Europe, as well as children whose parents have remained in Europe but sent them to his school.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Kyiv, September 2020.Hide Footnote In early 2021, however, unknown assailants shot at Abakarov in Kyiv and he has now closed the school and left the city.[fn]Crisis Group interview, member of Dagestani community, Kyiv, April 2021.Hide Footnote

VI. Legal Status

Young Muslim migrants – like migrants in general – can face a difficult legal situation in Ukraine. Most enter the country legally, as tourists. Their problems arise when they overstay the three months that Ukraine allows for Russian citizens without a visa. After that, they need a professional or personal reason to stay in the country. This reason can be a job, a volunteer relationship with an NGO or a spouse. It can also be a child: if a legal migrant gives birth in Ukraine, she can apply for citizenship for the child. Legal parents can then receive residency as parents of a citizen and, eventually, apply for citizenship as long-term residents.[fn]The Law of Ukraine “On Immigration”, Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine (2491-III), 7 August 2001.Hide Footnote Some turn to grey-area options. For example, as noted above, some male migrants pursue marriage to non-Muslim Ukrainian women, with varying degrees of subterfuge. Others arrange for fraudulent proof of employer sponsorship or of a volunteer relationship with a local NGO.[fn]Illegal immigrants entered Ukraine disguised as volunteers”, Korrespondent, 23 August 2019 (Russian).Hide Footnote

A small industry has emerged to offer forged documents. While it was once possible to simply purchase a Ukrainian passport outright, since 2017, when Schengen zone countries began to admit Ukrainians without the need for a visa, passports have become more expensive and more difficult to find.[fn]SBU blocked a large-scale scheme of unlawful legalisation of foreigners in Ukraine for further smuggling/transfer to the EU countries”, Interfax, 3 November 2020 (Russian).Hide Footnote As a result, the workarounds have grown ever more elaborate. In November 2020, Ukrainian counter-intelligence reported that they had subverted a large-scale illegal scheme that led to confiscation of nearly 150 fake passports and revocation of citizenship for 50 people. The scheme, which involved the Migration Service of Ukraine and local government officials, offered fake documentation of birth in Ukraine, ostensibly issued by another country. These papers, combined with registrations as Ukrainian residents, were used to acquire Ukrainian passports.[fn]SBU blocked a large-scale scheme of unlawful legalisation of foreigners in Ukraine for further smuggling/transfer to the EU countries”, Interfax, 3 November 2020 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Other schemes involve pasting photographs of migrants into old Ukrainian passports. These are then exchanged for biometric passports with the new photograph, which offer the holder the ability to travel to EU countries without a visa.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Notoriously, Artur Kurmakaev, shot by Ukrainian police after he attempted to kill two prominent Chechen migrants, had obtained Ukrainian national and foreign passports in a similar scheme. Using a deceased Ukrainian citizen’s passport, he then received a biometric passport to travel abroad.[fn]By the nickname of Dingo: The killer who attacked Osmayev and Okuyev is connected to Kadyrov and carried a passport of a murdered Odesa citizen”, Dumskaya, 2 June 2017 (Russian).Hide Footnote

Other legal paths exist but are less reliable. Migrants who are fleeing war or persecution in their own countries and meet the relevant legal standard can request refugee status or complementary protection status in Ukraine. Either one renders migrants legally eligible to work in Ukraine.[fn]How Ukraine welcomes refugees”, RFE/RL Ukraine, 26 September 2018 (Ukrainian).Hide Footnote Someone who receives complementary protection status, however, waives the right to one day be naturalised.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Borys Zakharov, human rights activist, 12 July 2020.Hide Footnote Moreover, although its legislation is fully in line with international standards, few receive these protections in Ukraine. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Ukraine, some 6,500 asylum seekers were awaiting Ukrainian adjudication as of mid-2019. At that time, Kyiv was approving some 100 claims per year and rejecting most, including from Syrian war refugees.[fn]“Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Ukraine”, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Thematic Review, June 2019.Hide Footnote

The Migration Service of Ukraine provided data to Crisis Group which indicates that between January 2014 and December 2019, 570 Russian citizens had applied for protection in Ukraine, with the numbers fairly evenly spread over the years.[fn]Official reply from the Migration Service to Crisis Group’s request for information, 4 December 2020. The average number of asylum applications from Russian citizens in Ukraine is about 96 per year (130 in 2014, 79 in 2015, 75 in 2016, 100 in 2017, 109 in 2018, 84 in 2019 and 38 as of 1 October 2020). These statistics are the only pertinent ones available from the Migration Service. Ukrainian authorities do not record applicants’ religion or home region. The number of migrants from Russia is significantly larger, as only some migrants apply for asylum. From 2014 to 1 November 2020, some 52,000 Russians immigrated to Ukraine and more than 19,000 obtained Ukrainian citizenship. The number of Muslims among them is unknown.Hide Footnote During that same period, 281 people were denied protection, 202 were deported, 53 were granted refugee status and 74 received complementary protection. Because the Migration Service does not distinguish Russian migrants by religion or specific place of origin within Russia, it is unclear how many of these applicants were Muslims.

Human rights activists can only speculate about why it is so difficult to gain asylum or protected status. One told Crisis Group his conversations with interior ministry officials indicate that they fear Kyiv would be overwhelmed if legal status was easier to obtain: “There would be such a flow of refugees that we wouldn’t be able to deal with them”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Borys Zakharov, human rights activist, 12 July 2020.Hide Footnote Some activists also say authorities may be biased against Muslims and/or prone to dismiss fears of persecution in Russia.[fn]Evgen Zakharov (ed.), “Protection of Asylum Seekers”, Kharkiv Human Rights Group, 2018, p. 34-35 (Ukrainian).Hide Footnote Migration Service decisions regularly note that applicants have no reason to fear returning to Russia or did not prove that they might face danger in Russia.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In one court hearing, a Migration Service staff member referred to the Russian constitution in saying: “There is no torture or inhuman treatment in Russia – it is not officially enshrined anywhere”.[fn]Ibid., p. 93.
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Authorities, by contrast, argue that care with asylum requests reflects concerns for the nation’s security. For instance, a Ukrainian official who works on issues relating to ethnic minorities in the country told Crisis Group that the large number of asylum rejections is likely the result of due diligence.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ukrainian government official, Kyiv, 14 December 2020.Hide Footnote

For those seeking asylum, a substantial network exists to provide help. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees works with four local partner NGOs to support asylum seekers. Right to Defence, Rokada, NEEKA and Desiate Kvitnia (10th of April) all provide legal help, as does the Kharkiv Human Rights Group, funded by the Norwegian ministry of foreign affairs. Rokada also offers job search assistance, psychologists, medical help and language courses. The Association of Muslim Refugees, or AZAN, comprising both refugees and Ukrainians, focuses explicitly on political dissidents and emigrants from the Russian Federation. It spends a substantial amount of its effort on raising awareness, including through the media, of the problems Muslim migrants face in Ukraine.

In part thanks to this support, asylum seekers who challenge denials in the courts often have some success, though the proceedings take time. Of its 47 cases between 2017 and 2018, the Kharkiv Human Rights Group won fourteen outright and obtained some leniency from the courts in twelve. The rest were still in progress as of 2018. Fifteen of the 47 cases concerned ten Russian citizens (some individuals have multiple asylum cases, either simultaneous or sequential). Although Crisis Group’s interlocutor could not be precise, he said up to five of the Russian asylum seekers were Muslims from the North Caucasus.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Borys Zakharov, human rights activist, 12 July 2020. See also “Protection of Asylum Seekers”, op. cit., p. 6.Hide Footnote

For those who win favourable rulings, however, the court’s judgment may not be enough. The Migration Service has been known to turn down individuals for protected status when they reapply after a court has overturned a previous rejection.[fn]Protection of Asylum Seekers”, op. cit., p. 6; “Why Ukraine refuses political refugees from Russia”, BBC Ukrainian, 10 February 2016.Hide Footnote

VII. Licit and Illicit Employment

Many new migrants struggle, whatever their legal status. At least some of the most socially vulnerable, including single mothers and their children, unaccompanied children and victims of torture, are eligible for temporary accommodation at three facilities located, one apiece, in the Kyiv, Odesa and Transcarpathia regions.[fn]How Ukraine welcomes refugees”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Most Russian-origin Muslim migrants who work outside the home are men.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, members of the Russian-origin Muslim community and other communities throughout Ukraine, 2019-2021.Hide Footnote As noted above, North Caucasus-origin women rarely do. Women of Tatar background and those of Russian or Ukrainian ethnicity who converted to Islam are more likely to seek paid employment but, community members say, generally only if the family needs the income. “Our [Caucasian] women practically don’t work [for pay]. They take care of children. I know of one Tatar woman who sells things on the internet. Ukrainian women who married our men are more likely to work – they sew in shops or cut hair in salons. But if the family is well-to-do, they don’t work”, a male migrant told Crisis Group.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Kyiv, February 2021.Hide Footnote

Those men and women who do find paid employment have a wide range of jobs. They drive taxis, work as security guards, labour on construction sites, lead prayers at mosques, farm and sell products at Ukraine’s markets. Some, particularly those who have been in Ukraine for many years, have become affluent. A few combine religious and secular roles: one religious leader from Dagestan spent many years running an animal husbandry operation outside of Kyiv.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Kyiv, August 2019.Hide Footnote

Some migrants from Dagestan and Chechnya have found success in combat sports (such as martial arts or wrestling) in Ukraine. They are prominent in local competitions and as coaches and trainers. Combat sports clubs run by North Caucasus expatriates throughout Ukraine generally welcome people of all ethnicities, but young men and boys from these same communities are somewhat over-represented.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Odesa, April 2019.Hide Footnote Migrant networks enable such businesses to thrive. One community member told us that a prominent local of Chechen origin provided a training facility rent-free to a new immigrant, who used it to offer coaching services.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Dnipro, August 2019.Hide Footnote A mixed martial arts program also split off from Abakarov’s Khadzhibei school in Odesa when the latter relocated to Kyiv. It is run by two migrants from Dagestan.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Odesa, April 2019.Hide Footnote

Ukrainian scholars have argued that North Caucasian migrants are over-represented in criminal activity in Ukraine, where ethnic criminal groupings have continued to grow in recent years.[fn]S.M. Nevmerzhytskyi, “Nature of Ethnic Organized Crime in Ukraine”, Actual Problems of Domestic Jurisprudence, no. 1 (2019), p. 192.Hide Footnote While Crisis Group’s research does not permit comparisons between the criminal ties of this community and others, it appears there is some criminal spillover from Russia as well as through networks that cross borders. For example, migrants told Crisis Group that Arslan Guseinov, murdered in Kyiv in October 2019, was targeted “in a [criminal] fight over a Moscow restaurant”.[fn]Unknown assailants in Kyiv shot Dagestan native”, RFE/RL, 14 October 2019 (Russian). Crisis Group interview, migrant from Dagestan, Kyiv, October 2019.Hide Footnote Other illicit dealings are local to Ukraine. One migrant from the North Caucasus confirmed his own involvement in organised crime, and even noted how well he and his colleagues work with Ukrainian criminal groups. “We used to clash”, he said, “but now even go to one another’s court hearings”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, migrant from North Caucasus, Kyiv, November 2020.Hide Footnote

VIII. Official Attitudes

Ukrainian authorities may be growing increasingly leery of Russian-origin Muslims. Several high-profile cases of jihadists making their way to Ukraine after fighting in Syria appear to have raised suspicions of the community as a whole. Today, police and security forces monitor areas where migrants live and congregate. Migrants said this attention spreads anxiety in Kyiv’s Chaiky neighbourhood, particularly among those whose presence is not fully legal.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Caucasus Emirate and Takfir-wal-Hijra representatives, Kyiv, September 2020.
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Crisis Group interviews, Caucasus Emirate and Takfir-wal-Hijra representatives, Kyiv, September 2020.
 

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When authorities formally investigate migrants from Russia, whether in asylum or criminal cases, they may rely on information supplied by the Russian Federation. The Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) vets asylum applications in part by cross-referencing names and other identifying information in databases that include information coming from Moscow and other places.[fn]Evhen Zakharov, “Security Service of Ukraine and Human Rights”, Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, 23 January 2017 (Ukrainian).Hide Footnote Human rights activists complain that the SBU accepts foreign, including Russian, assessments that may be of dubious credibility at face value. Some advocates blame bias, corruption and informal ties between Russian and Ukrainian security services.[fn]Protection of Asylum Seekers”, op. cit., pp. 75-90.Hide Footnote “The Ukrainian state submits fully to Russia's investigative bodies in every possible way [when it comes to Muslim migrants from Russia]”, a human rights activist said.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Borys Zakharov, human rights activist, Kyiv, 13 July 2020.Hide Footnote Russian authorities report that in 2018, Ukraine extradited 22 people requested by Moscow.[fn]Crisis Group has no data on how many people Russia requested. Those extradited included Magomed Dukuzov of Chechnya, suspected of killing Russian Forbes editor-in-chief Paul Khlebnikov in Moscow in 2004. “Ukraine extradited 22 people to Russia during the year”, lb.ua, 9 April 2019 (Ukrainian).Hide Footnote Ukrainian media reports indicate that Ukraine extradited 36 people in 2014-2017 and thirteen people in 2018-2019.[fn]PGO: In 2018-2019, thirteen people were extradited to Russia”, RFE/RL Ukraine, 2 October 2019 (Ukrainian); “Protection of Asylum Seekers”, op. cit., p. 6.Hide Footnote

Cooperation with Russia draws criticism on two sets of grounds. One is the annexation of Crimea and continuing war in eastern Ukraine, which, in the eyes of nationalists, should preclude any cooperation with Russian authorities. Another is that, in addition to charges sometimes being dubious, the human rights situation in Russia and the North Caucasus raises concerns that individuals deported or extradited there could face significant risk.[fn]Zakharov, “Security Service of Ukraine and Human Rights”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

In a few prominent cases, human rights activists have engaged the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Human Rights Committee seeking to prevent extradition, including of people who appear to have, indeed, fought in Syria and/or been members of ISIS. Sometimes, these efforts are successful.[fn]“The SBU reports that it has detained an Islamist in the Chernihiv region”, Ukrainska Pravda, 20 November 2015 (Ukrainian); Ukraine’s Court Ruling on Extension of Extradition Arrest for Zelimkhan Belkharoev, 751/7997/16-к,7 October 2016 (Ukrainian); Anvar Derkach, “FSB and SBU: Extradition by the books?”, RFE/RL, 17 November 2016 (Russian); “ECHR declined to consider the case of Ingush fighter Belkhoroev”, RFE/RL, 3 July 2018 (Russian)Hide Footnote Sometimes, they are not.[fn]Lutsenko’s ex-deputy said that information about participation in the anti-terrorist operation of Timur Tumgoyev, whom Ukraine had given to FSB, is a myth”, Novoe Vremia, 13 November 2019 (Ukrainian); “Ukraine denied asylum to a native of Chechnya: in Russia he is accused of murder”, RFE/RL, 30 September 2020 (Russian).Hide Footnote Like asylum appeals, however, they are always time-consuming. In the meantime, the people in question usually remain in prison.[fn]Authorities place those whose names are on Interpol lists under provisional arrest while they await a formal extradition request. The European Convention on Extradition allows for eighteen days of provisional arrest absent receipt of extradition and supporting documents, and 40 days total. Ukrainian prosecutors and courts generally keep people in prison for the full 40 days (even if they have not received all documents) and then on the basis of the extradition request extend imprisonment for up to a year. People appealing extradition also remain in prison. Only in rare cases are prisoners released into house arrest or on bail. Moreover, even if an extradition is successfully contested or otherwise cancelled, there is of course no guarantee that the person in question will be able to legally remain in Ukraine. European Convention on Extradition, Paris, 13 December 1957; Crisis Group interview, Borys Zakharov, human rights activist, 13 July 2020; “Refat Chubarov bailed out a citizen of the Russian Federation”, QHA17 February 2017 (Ukrainian).Hide Footnote

Some migrants from Russia may have chosen Ukraine as a destination in part because they expected protection from Russian law enforcement.

The fact that some migrants from Russia may have chosen Ukraine as a destination in part because they expected protection from Russian law enforcement further complicates things. “The last wave [of migrants includes] people who were inspired by the slogans of the Revolution of Dignity, and they reasoned that if Russia and Ukraine are at war, then Ukraine will shelter us”, said Anvar Derkach, a Ukrainian activist.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Anvar Derkach, AZAN co-founder, Kyiv, 10 August and 11 September 2020.Hide Footnote

But some of those welcomes have run out. Ruslan Meiriev, originally from Ingushetia, claims that Ukrainian authorities told him in 2014 that Russia had put him on a wanted list, but that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”.[fn]How the SBU and the GPU are claiming refugees to be Islamic terrorists”, Hromadske.ua, 28 October 2016 (Russian).Hide Footnote In 2016, however, Ukraine arrested him on charges of membership in a terrorist organisation. His defenders say the accusation comes from Russian intelligence.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Moreover, some ethnic Chechens and other North Caucasians from Russia, and, in some cases, from European Union countries, came not seeking shelter, but to fight alongside Ukraine’s armed forces and volunteer militias.[fn]Andrew E. Kramer, “Islamic battalions, stocked with Chechens, aid Ukraine in war with rebels”, The New York Times, 7 July 2015. Crisis Group interview, Muslim Cheberdoevsky, commander of Chechen battalion, Kyiv, December 2020.Hide Footnote One man told Crisis Group that Ukrainian authorities asked them to come: “When the war began here in 2014, we arrived at the invitation of the Ukrainian special services. ... We had oral agreements that we would take part in this war on the side of Ukraine against the Putin regime, against the Russian offensive”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muslim Cheberdoevsky, commander of Chechen battalion, Kyiv, December 2020.Hide Footnote Others report they received help by way of eased procedures for obtaining residency documents.[fn]Crisis Group interview, volunteer battalion representative, Kyiv, December 2020.Hide Footnote

The Ukrainian government’s attitude to this category of migrants, however, has lately cooled. Some who took part in the predominantly Russian-origin Muslim battalion discussed earlier now face extradition and deportation to Russia or third countries under summary procedures and, recently, financial and visa sanctions. The reason is that Russia has put their names on Interpol lists, often for reasons tied to their past involvement in wars in Chechnya.[fn]Crisis Group interview, volunteer battalion representative, Kyiv, December 2020; “Extradition of soldiers at the request of the Russian Federation undermines the defense capability of Ukraine – ‘Golos’”, Interfax Ukraine, 4 December 2020. Crisis Group interview, attorney for Sheikh Mansur battalion, Kyiv, December 2020. Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “Decree of the President of Ukraine”, No 203/2021, 21 May 2021.Hide Footnote

While perhaps overlooking some of the security and other considerations behind the government’s actions, both supporters of these fighters and other migrants expressed concern that if Kyiv behaves this way toward Russian-origin Muslims whom it expressly welcomed to take up arms on its behalf, then it cannot be relied upon to continue welcoming others, either.[fn]Crisis Group interview, attorney for Sheikh Mansur battalion, Kyiv, December 2020.Hide Footnote One told Crisis Group: “We think that now they will be pushing us [Russian-origin Muslim migrants] out of Ukraine. But many have nowhere to go”.[fn]Crisis Group WhatsApp interview, migrant from Dagestan, 14 June 2021.Hide Footnote

IX. Conclusion and Ways Forward

Ukraine already benefits from the fact that many new Muslim migrants from Russia are happy to be there and build strong ties with existing Ukrainian communities. If Kyiv can go a step further to speed up asylum procedures and bolster its investigations to avoid refoulement risks, it will be positioned to provide still better support to this community.

Improvements could include working with civil society to make better information about Ukrainian law available to migrants and to ensure that those who lack access to legal assistance receive it.

When it comes to acting on Russian extradition and other law enforcement cooperation requests, Ukrainian authorities should take greater pains not only to verify Russian information, but also to share their procedures for doing so with civil society and watchdog groups as relevant, in the service of transparency and accountability. Moreover, they should develop better protections to guard against the extradition of those who might face abuse in Russia, including by being prepared to try and incarcerate those who may be subject to prosecution in Ukraine.

Ukraine’s ministry of foreign affairs should consider developing its own, independent analysis of the human rights situation in Russia, including as concerns the risk of abuse facing individuals in vulnerable groups and those extradited there to face prosecution. Authorities should then include this analysis in decisions on asylum, deportation and extradition. Alternatively, if the ministry does not feel it has sufficient capacity to conduct its own enquiries, Kyiv could seek support from partner governments.

Some legal shifts may also be helpful. The Ukrainian Migration Service could, for example, amend its practice of refusing protection status multiple times to the same person for the same cause even after courts have ruled against previous such refusals. Ukraine might also take steps to offer people who are on Interpol wanted lists some alternatives, in cases that warrant it, to lengthy detentions without recourse to bail.[fn]Protection of Asylum Seekers”, op. cit., pp. 35-36.Hide Footnote

It should also be more consistent with regard to protections already on the books: according to Ukrainian law, Ukraine should not extradite asylum and protected-status seekers awaiting adjudication of their status, including on appeal. In practice, these protections are sometimes applied, and sometimes not.[fn]Ibid., p. 44.Hide Footnote Finally, Ukraine might explore options to allow migrants to work legally while their asylum applications are in process, to provide an alternative to their seeking illegal ways to make a living.

Ukraine may well need support to do these things. The European Union, U.S. and other partners should provide such assistance as part of their overall efforts to bolster Ukraine’s legal and political capacity.

Kyiv/Brussels, 7 July 2021

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