Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland by plane. Photo: DPA
Germany received one of the highest numbers of Ukrainian asylum seekers in Europe last year, according to data released last week by Eurostat and analyzed by The Local.
Saide Abibulaeva feared that her life was in danger last year.
The 62-year-old Ukrainian woman was living in Crimea with diabetes, but could not get access to medical care with pro-Russian troops occupying the area.
"She was very stressed and her blood sugar went high, which is very dangerous," her daughter, Sevil Agcadag, told The Local from her home Stuttgart.
"Our people are in a horrible situation."
Abibulaeva decided to flee the country for Germany, joining her daughter and grandchild, and apply for asylum, but she is expected to wait about 16 months for a decision, her daughter said.
She is just one of thousands of Ukrainians who applied for asylum last year in Germany. The country received the highest number of Ukrainian asylum requests in the European U at 2,705, Eurostat reported - 18 times greater than 2013's 150 applicants.
Of the Ukrainians who applied, Germany accepted 20 in the first instance, but rejected another 45.
Overall, the number of Ukrainian asylum seekers in the 28 EU member states ballooned to 14,040 people in 2014 - more than 13 times higher than the number in 2013 at 1,060 applicants.
That number is even greater when compared to 2008, the beginning of the global economic crisis, when 925 Ukrainians applied for asylum.
“What we have seen from our members working with asylum seekers are those who are fleeing the conflict in the east of Ukraine,” Julia Zelvenska, a senior legal officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, told The Local. “In the past, it has been for political persecution, like in 2013, or for sexual orientation.”
The UN refugee agency UNHCR said last month that an estimated one million Ukrainians were displaced internally, with many people moving west. Some 600,000 people had sought asylum, many of them in non-EU countries such as Russia, Belarus and Moldova.
But many Ukrainians also applied for asylum in the European Union in 2014, a year that started with a revolution in Kiev and the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia then annexed Crimea in March, in a move widely condemned around the world, before propping up separatists fighting bloody battles with Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.
"My mother gets bad news from Ukraine every day. Many people are in jail, she left her husband and her son. She is scared for her family," Agcadag told The Local, tearfully. "But I understand her very well. She cries almost every day."
Of those who applied for asylum in 2014, 650 Ukrainians received positive outcomes on their first application decision in the EU. Eurostat defines positive outcomes as grants of refugee or subsidiary protection status, or an authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons.
Still, those who received good news were greatly outnumbered by those who were rejected in their first try - 2,335.
Zelvenska explained to The Local that it is generally very hard for Ukrainians to gain asylum in EU member states, or to even reach those countries in the first place.
“One of the main reasons people get rejected may be that many countries are not clear on how the situation developed and won’t issue decisions until it is clear how the Ukrainian situation is going to develop,” she said.
“European countries are also being very formalistic in the criteria for asylum,” Zelvenska added. “For example, they may say that there are options for alternative protection already within Ukraine. For people in the east, they may say that they could relocate to the west.”
Zelvenska noted though that reasons for rejection are not made public so it is difficult to know for certain.
“We think it’s not necessary to apply all the criteria in a strict manner,” she said. “They must consider each case, country and the circumstances.”
The number of Ukrainian asylum seekers through the first two months of 2015 has dropped significantly across the EU and applicants to Poland are likely to surpass those to Germany, Zelvenska said.
Only 125 Ukrainians applied for asylum across Europe in February, according to Zelvenska. Last year, EU countries received the highest number of asylum seekers since 1992 with a total of 626,000 applicants. More than 400,000 people applied in 2013.