a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media
The constitution and law provide for freedom of expression, including for the press and other media, but authorities did not always respect these rights. The government banned, blocked, or sanctioned media outlets and individual journalists deemed a threat to national security or who expressed positions that authorities believed undermined the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Other problematic practices continued to affect media freedom, including self-censorship, so-called jeansa payments (publishing unsubstantiated or biased news articles for a fee), and slanted news coverage by media outlets whose owners had pro-Russia political views, close ties to the government, or business or political interests to protect. Government failure to investigate or prosecute attacks on human rights defenders and peaceful protesters also led to de facto restrictions on freedom of assembly and association.
In the Donbas region, Russia-led forces suppressed freedom of speech and the press through harassment, intimidation, abductions, and physical assaults on journalists and media outlets. They also prevented the transmission of Ukrainian and independent television and radio programming in areas under their control.
Freedom of Expression: With few exceptions, individuals in areas under government control could generally criticize the government publicly and privately and discuss matters of public interest without fear of official reprisal.
The law criminalizes the display of communist and Nazi symbols as well as the manufacture or promotion of the St. George’s ribbon, a symbol associated with Russia-led forces in the Donbas region and Russian irredentism. During the May 9 celebration of World War II Victory Day, police opened 17 criminal proceedings and filed 22 administrative offense citations against individuals in Odesa, Zakarpattya, Lviv, Zaporizhzhya, and Luhansk Oblasts for carrying banned communist and Nazi symbols.
The law prohibits statements that threaten the country’s territorial integrity, promote war, instigate racial or religious conflict, or support Russian aggression against the country, and the government prosecuted individuals under these laws (see subsections on Censorship and National Security).
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: The NGO Freedom House rated the country’s press as “partly free.” Independent media and internet news sites were active and expressed a wide range of views, but the government took some actions that restricted media and freedom of expression.
On February 2, President Zelenskyy signed a decree imposing sanctions on Taras Kozak, a member of parliament from the Opposition Platform-For Life party, and eight companies, including three media outlets owned by Kozak (ZIK, 112, and NewsOne) that were forced to close on February 2, in accordance with the presidential decree citing national security grounds due to their affiliation with pro-Russia parliamentarian Viktor Medvedchuk. Further, the National Security and Defense Council (NSDC) requested YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter remove the channels’ content from their platforms. Medvedchuk has been under international sanctions since 2014 for violating Ukraine’s sovereignty and these sanctions remained in effect. Reactions of civil society organizations to media sanctions varied. Some local journalists and media organizations claimed the sanctions legitimately addressed concerns regarding the threat of terrorist financing. The HRMMU criticized the decision, noting it was not taken by an impartial authority and lacked proper justification and proportion.
On August 21, President Zelenskyy approved an NSDC decision to sanction several individuals, businesses, and media entities on what authorities deemed national security grounds for “spreading pro-Russian propaganda.” To carry out the decision, the Security Service of Ukraine ordered Ukrainian internet providers to block access to sanctioned news outlets, including, among other sites widely considered to have a pro-Russia editorial slant, Strana.ua, Sharij.net, Vedomosti, and Moskovsky Komsomolets. As of late October, access to these news sites for users in Ukraine was only possible with a virtual private network (VPN). Individuals sanctioned included bloggers and politicians Anatoliy and Olga Shariy in response to their running a video blog and website that authorities considered too “pro-Russian.” The OSCE media freedom representative expressed concerns regarding the decision’s effect on the country’s media freedom climate, noting, “Any sanctions on media should be subject to careful scrutiny, accompanied by effective procedural safeguards to prevent undue interference.”
Privately owned media, particularly television channels, the most successful of which were owned by influential oligarchs, often provided readers and viewers a “biased pluralism,” representing the views of their owners and providing favorable coverage of their allies and criticism of political and business rivals. The 10 most popular television stations were owned by businessmen whose primary business was not in media. Independent media had difficulty competing with major outlets that operated with oligarchic subsidies. Editorial independence was particularly limited in media controlled by individuals and oligarchs supportive of or linked to the Russian government and Russian intelligence agencies.
There were reports of continuing financial and political pressure on the National Public Broadcasting Company, created to provide an independent publicly funded alternative to oligarch-controlled television channels. Local media outlets claimed that senior representatives from the Office of the President and other government bodies lobbied the broadcaster’s supervisory board to support favored candidates for key leadership positions at the broadcaster. Despite this reported pressure, the selection process remained transparent and unbiased.
Jeansa, the practice of planting one-sided or favorable news coverage paid for by politicians or oligarchs, continued to be widespread. Monitoring by the Institute for Mass Information (IMI) of national print and online media for jeansa indicated a wide range of actors ordered political jeansa, including political parties, politicians, oblast governments, and oligarchs. Only seven of the 18 most-visited information sites did not contain jeansa, according to an IMI monitoring study conducted in April. The study found that the publishing of jeansa increased by 39 percent in the second quarter of the year.
Violence and Harassment: Violence against journalists remained a problem. Human rights groups and journalists blamed what they saw as government inaction in solving the crimes for the emergence of a culture of impunity. Government authorities sometimes participated in and condoned attacks on journalists.
According to the IMI, as of September 1, there had been 12 reports of attacks on journalists, compared with 14 cases during the same period in 2020. As in 2020, private, rather than state, actors perpetrated most of the attacks. As of September 1, there were 11 incidents involving threats against journalists, compared with 13 during the same period in 2020. The IMI and editors of major independent news outlets also noted online harassment of journalists by societal actors, reflecting a growing societal intolerance of reporting deemed insufficiently patriotic, a development they asserted had the tacit support of the government.
There were multiple reports of attacks on journalists by government officials. For example on February 1, Cherkasy City Council official Stanislav Kolomiyets and an accomplice allegedly forced entry into the editorial office of independent broadcaster Antena TV and attacked journalist Valeriy Vorotnyk. According to Vorotnyk, the attackers punched and kicked him in the head, causing him to lose consciousness, and destroyed one of his cameras. Vorotnyk said he believed the attack was in retaliation for his dispute with Kolomiyets over the use of Antena’s copyrighted logo on social media. Police charged the attackers with attacking a journalist, and in May the prosecutor’s office submitted an indictment to the court. As of early September, the trial had not begun, and Kolomiyets retained his city council position.
Media professionals asserted that they continued to experience pressure from the Security Service, the military, police, and other officials when reporting on sensitive issues. For example on July 2, several officers of the Dnipro “Municipal Guard,” a subdivision of Dnipro City Council’s Department of Public Order, attacked two cameramen and a reporter who were filming the removal of advertisements from billboards in Dnipro’s city center. Ihor Hutnik, a cameraman for local television station OTV, and Serhiy Fayzulin, a cameraman for D1 local news, alleged a group of men, including Municipal Guard officers, suddenly began shouting at them to stop filming; the attackers punched and kicked the cameramen and smashed a camera. The two victims were hospitalized with serious head injuries. On July 3, police announced five suspects, including three Municipal Guard officers, had been arrested on charges of hooliganism and violence against a journalist. As of early September, the investigation was underway.
There were reports of attacks on journalists by nongovernment actors. On the night of February 1, journalist Olha Ferrar’s car was vandalized in Rivne with a brick that shattered the car’s side window. Ferrar said she believed she was targeted in retaliation for her journalistic activities and social media posts, particularly her coverage of the Rivne Oblast Council. Police classified the incident as “hooliganism” and opened an investigation. As of early September, the investigation continued.
On February 4, Nash TV journalist Oleksiy Palchunov was assaulted while reporting on a protest organized by violent radical groups against Nash TV, which the protesters accused of spreading pro-Russia propaganda. According to the Kyiv City Prosecutor’s Office, the assailant grabbed Palchunov’s microphone to disrupt the journalist’s video recording and punched Palchunov twice in the face. The police investigated the incident, and on July 29, the case was transferred to the court.
There were allegations the government prosecuted journalists in retaliation for their work (see section 1.e.).
Journalists reported receiving threats in connection with their reporting. For example, Volodymyr Yakymiv, editor of the online news site Berezh.info, claimed Ternopil Oblast Council deputy Oleh Valov threatened physical violence against him in an April 7 telephone conversation in response to his professional journalistic activities. Valov reportedly downplayed the incident as an emotional outburst in response to what he said were false accusations against his wife that were published on Yakymiv’s site. Police opened an investigation into the threats in April. As of late October, the case remained under investigation.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights organizations frequently criticized the government for what they viewed as an overly broad approach to banning books, television shows, websites, and other content perceived by authorities to counter national security interests (see subsections on National Security and Internet Freedom, below).
There were instances in which the government practiced censorship, restricted content, and penalized individuals and media outlets for reportedly having pro-Russia views and disseminating Russian disinformation through imposing financial sanctions, banning websites, and blocking television channels. The government banned and penalized additional media outlets and television channels throughout the year and worked to prevent certain media outlets from advertising on Facebook, YouTube, and other social media platforms (see Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media, and National Security subsections).
Both independent and state-owned media periodically engaged in self-censorship when reporting stories that might expose their media owners or political allies to criticism or might be perceived by the public as insufficiently patriotic or provide information that could be used for Russian propaganda.
Libel/Slander Laws: Libel is a civil offense. While the law limits the monetary damages a plaintiff can claim in a lawsuit, local media observers continued to express concern over high monetary damages awarded for alleged libel. Government offices and public figures used the threat of civil suits, sometimes based on alleged damage to a person’s “honor and integrity,” to influence or intimidate the press and investigative journalists.
National Security: In the context of the continuing Russia-led armed conflict in the Donbas region and Russian disinformation and cyber campaigns, authorities took measures to prohibit, regulate, and occasionally censor information deemed a national security threat, particularly those emanating from Russia and promoting pro-Russia lines or disinformation. Authorities also sanctioned media figures and outlets, as well as banned websites, and prevented advertising of media outlets and websites whose messages were deemed to be counter to national security interests (see Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media and Censorship and Content Restrictions subsections above).
Citing the continuing armed conflict with Russian-led forces, the government continued the practice of banning specific works by Russian actors, film directors, and singers, as well as imposing sanctions on pro-Russia journalists. According to the State Film Agency, as of mid-September approximately 815 films and television shows had been banned on national security grounds since 2014. The government maintained a ban on the operations of 1,848 legal entities, approximately 840 companies and 4,046 persons who allegedly posed a threat to the country’s national security. Targets of the ban included companies and persons that allegedly posed a “threat to information and the cyber security of the state.” The Ministry of Culture maintained a list of 204 cultural figures whose professional activities were banned for allegedly posing a “threat to the national security of Ukraine.” The government maintained a ban on VKontakte and Odnoklasniki, two widely used social networks based in Russia, major Russian television stations, and smaller Russian stations that operated independently of state control.
The National Council on Television and Radio Broadcasting (Derzhkomteleradio) maintained a list of banned books seen to be aimed at undermining the country’s independence; promoting violence; inciting interethnic, racial, or religious hostility; promoting terrorist attacks; or encroaching on human rights and freedoms. As of August the list contained 264 titles.
Some media freedom groups claimed the government used formal pretexts to silence outlets for being “pro-Russia” and for being critical of its national security policy (see Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media, above). On February 12, Derzhkomteleradio announced an unscheduled inspection of pro-Russia television station Nash TV, claiming Nash TV guest Olena Bondarenko’s remarks during a January show regarding Ukrainian service members and the conflict in the Donbas might have amounted to “incitement of national enmity” in violation of national security laws. During the following several months, Derzhkomteleradio imposed a series of fines on Nash TV for these and other remarks that allegedly violated national security laws. On August 19, Derzhkomteleradio announced it would seek revocation of Nash TV’s broadcasting license, citing multiple instances of “incitement of national enmity,” including the use on the channel of “Ukrainophobic vocabulary.” On September 16, Derzhkomteleradio filed a lawsuit with the Kyiv District Administrative Court to revoke Nash TV’s broadcasting license.
Nongovernmental Impact: There were reports radical groups attacked journalists. For example on July 21, members of the violent radical group National Resistance reportedly attacked Oleksandr Kuzhelnyy, a photographer for Kyiv-based Bukvy media, outside the Shevchenkivskyy District Court building in Kyiv. At the time of the attack, Kuzhelnyy was covering the court’s deliberations regarding a request from the government of Belarus to deport Belarusian activist Oleksiy Bolenkov (see section 1.e.). According to Bukvy media, a representative of National Resistance, whose members had gathered there to express support for Bolenkov’s deportation, punched Kuzhelnyy in the face. In a video recording of the incident, law enforcement officials standing next to the victim at the time of the attack failed to react. Police subsequently opened a “hooliganism” investigation into the incident, but as of mid-September no arrests had been made. Andriy Biletskyy, leader of National Corps, which organized the protest, condemned the attackers and apologized to Kuzhelnyy; the two men were photographed shaking hands at their meeting.
The ability to exercise freedom of expression reportedly remained extremely limited in territory controlled by Russia-led forces in eastern Ukraine. Based on HRMMU media monitoring, critical independent media on the territory controlled by Russia-led forces was nonexistent. According to a media freedom watchdog, authorities in the “LPR” continued to block dozens of Ukrainian news outlets.
The HRMMU reported that journalists entering Russia-controlled territory of the “DPR” had to inform the “press center” of the “ministry of defense” regarding their daily activities, were arbitrarily required to show video footage at checkpoints, and were accompanied by members of armed groups when travelling close to the line of contact.
There were instances in which the government censored online content. Law enforcement bodies monitored the internet, at times without appropriate legal authority, and took significant steps to block access to websites based on “national security concerns.”
On August 21, President Zelenskyy approved an NSDC decision to sanction several individuals and legal entities deemed to be “pro-Russia propagandists” (see Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media, above). In addition to requiring Ukrainian internet service providers to block several Ukrainian news sites, the decision also ordered the blocking of social media pages of sanctioned individuals, which included Anatoliy Shariy, editor of the sharij.net news platform, and Ihor Huzhva, editor in chief of media outlet strana.ua (see Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media, above). The decision also ordered the blocking of 12 Russian news sites; the order did not define a time limit for the sanctions of several of the sites. Ukrainian internet providers continued to block websites in accordance with government orders from prior years based on national security concerns. As of mid-August, 685 sites were blocked in the country on such grounds. According to monitoring by Digital Security Lab Ukraine, internet service provider compliance with the government’s orders to block sites varied widely.
Free speech advocates expressed concern that courts continued to block access to websites on grounds other than national security. Freedom House reported thousands of websites, including some self-described news sites, were blocked for alleged involvement in cybercrime, fraud, and other illegal activities. For example on February 18, a Kyiv court ruled to block access to 12 websites, including media platforms Apostrophe, Glavkom, and Holos, on the grounds they allegedly published false information regarding plaintiff Pavlo Barbul, the former director of the state-owned defense technology enterprise SpetsTekhnoExport. Representatives of the publications claimed the court’s decision was retribution for their reporting on allegations of misuse of funds by SpetsTekhnoExport during Barbul’s 2014-18 tenure. On April 28, the court reversed the ruling and unblocked access to the websites. Barbul was charged with large-scale embezzlement in 2019; as of late October, his trial was underway in court.
The Myrotvorets (peacemaker) database, which reportedly maintained close ties to the country’s security services, published the personal data of journalists and public figures who had been critical of the country’s security services or had made other statements the site considered unpatriotic. For instance on February 5, the website published personally identifiable information of Nataliya Lavrenyuk, the wife of Opposition Platform-For Life lawmaker Taras Kozak. Myrotvorets claimed Lavrenyuk’s alleged financial dealings in Russia and alleged use of a Russian passport for travel to Russia-occupied Crimea constituted “conscious acts against the national security of Ukraine” and called on law enforcement agencies to investigate her. (The vast majority of the international community did not recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea.) On February 19, President Zelenskyy signed a decree sanctioning eight individuals, including Lavrenyuk, for “financing of terrorism.” Lavrenyuk was not convicted of the charge by any court.
There were reports of cyberattacks on journalists who reported on corruption. For example, former Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty (RFE/RL) journalist Elena Dub claimed Russia-backed bots on April 12 carried out a spam attack on her social networks and mobile devices, which included a barrage of threatening messages. She claimed the attack was likely retaliation for her reporting for RFE/RL’s Crimea Realities program from 2015 to 2020.
Human rights groups and journalists who were critical of Russia’s aggressive actions in the Donbas region and its occupation of Crimea reported their websites were subjected to cyberattacks, such as coordinated denial of service incidents and unauthorized attempts to obtain information from computers as well as coordinated campaigns of trolling and harassment on social media. In its annual Freedom on the Net report published in September, Freedom House concluded that the country’s internet freedom environment improved, citing fewer cases of users being imprisoned for online speech.
There were reports the government prosecuted individuals for their posts on social media. For example on March 25, the Chernihiv District Court filed administrative charges against a woman from Kolomyya for allegedly spreading false information. According to the court, the woman falsely claimed in a Facebook post that a COVID-19 vaccine had not passed all required safety tests. On April 28, a judge ruled to drop the charge on grounds of triviality. In a separate case, on October 7, a district court in Zakarpattya Oblast found a man guilty of spreading false rumors concerning the pandemic on social media and fined him 225 hryvnia ($9).
Academic Freedom and Cultural Events
There were some instances in which the government restricted academic freedom or cultural events.
The government maintained a list of Russian or pro-Russia musicians, actors, and other cultural figures it prohibited from entering the country on national security grounds.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights.
Freedom of Peaceful Assembly
The constitution provides for the freedom of peaceful assembly, but police sometimes restricted or failed to protect freedom of assembly. No laws, however, regulate the process of organizing and conducting events to provide for the right, and authorities have wide discretion under a Soviet-era directive to grant or refuse permission for assemblies on grounds of protecting public order and safety. Organizers are required to inform authorities in advance of demonstrations.
There were reports of police restricting and failing to protect freedom of assembly. For example according to human rights NGO Zmina, on June 18, police in Kupiansk arrested a woman who was participating in a rally against a city council decision to close several schools. The woman claimed that as she was leaving the rally, a man in civilian clothes shouted insults at her and attempted to physically restrain her. She claimed police officers who arrived at the scene pushed her in the back and detained her, causing her injuries. Journalist Bohdan Cheremsky claimed another man in civilian clothes knocked a smart phone out of his hands as he attempted to film the arrest. According to Cheremsky, the men in civilian clothes were police officers. The woman filed a complaint with police, but as of October no investigation had been registered.
Human rights defenders noted that police at times arbitrarily enforced COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, including through selective dispersal of civic assemblies. For example on January 19, police in Kyiv forcefully detained 13 individuals who had peacefully gathered at a square near the city center to protest impunity for violence committed by violent radical groups. Participants claimed police ordered them to disperse before they had unfurled their banners to begin the rally. One participant who was a minor claimed an officer hit him in the face while he was detained on a police bus. Police claimed the rally violated quarantine restrictions, but human rights observers noted police did not intervene to end a concurrent rally at Independence Square in Kyiv in support of entrepreneurs.
Events organized by women’s rights activists or the LGBTQI+ community were regularly disrupted by members of violent radical groups. Police at times did not adequately protect participants from attack before or after the events, nor did they provide sufficient security for smaller demonstrations or events, especially those organized by persons belonging to minority groups or opposition political movements. For example on May 27, members of the violent radical group Solaris attacked a prescreening of the LGBTQI+ film, Let’s Be Gay, at Dialog Hub, a reproductive health-focused education center in Kyiv. The LGBTQI+ rights NGO KyivPride posted a video of the attack on its Instagram page, noting that approximately 10 persons in masks disrupted the event by playing loud music outside the center before breaking the center’s windows and throwing a firecracker and a tear gas canister into the room where the film was playing. Press reports stated that 20 guests suffered minor burns to their eyes and experienced a cough that lasted for approximately an hour.
On May 29, the violent radical group Tradition and Order violently disrupted two seminars on feminism organized by the LGBTQI+ NGO Insight held concurrently in Odesa and Kyiv. Insight representatives reported Tradition and Order members gathered outside the hotel where the Odesa seminar was set to take place several hours in advance, and several members later forced entry into the event, causing participants to flee to a more secure area. The organizer of the Odesa event claimed that two police officers who arrived at the scene refused to intervene, claiming they were undermanned and that there were no reports of bodily injuries. On the same day, approximately 30 balaclava-clad Tradition and Order members, some carrying metal bats, disrupted Insight’s seminar in Kyiv. The young men climbed a fence to force entry into the event, shouted antihomosexual insults and threats at the participants, and occupied seats being used for the seminar. The organizers report they secured a court order for police to investigate the case after police initially declined to register the incident as a criminal act.
There were some improvements throughout the year regarding police efforts to adequately protect peaceful protesters from attacks by violent radical groups. For example on September 19, between 5,000 and 7,000 persons took part in the “March of Equality” pride parade in central Kyiv. Organizers coordinated closely with police to implement security measures to protect the participants from the threat posed by counterprotesters. Police and National Guard officers strictly enforced a cordon of the parade route, requiring participants to exit via the subway to protect them from counterprotesters. Several hundred counterprotesters from violent radical groups gathered near the parade route carrying signs denouncing the participants. There were no police reports of violent clashes or arrests.
In Russia-controlled territory, the HRMMU observed a climate of fear and self-censorship, preventing individuals from openly participating in peaceful assemblies. The HRMMU noted there were a few instances in which peaceful assemblies existed in Russia-controlled territory on nonpolitical issues, such as protesting salary delays and expressing concern for a lack of water supply.
Russia-led forces in the “DPR” and “LPR” continued to implement “laws” requiring all religious organizations except the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to undergo “state religious expert evaluations” and reregister with them. According to the HRMMU, most religious groups recognized under Ukrainian law continued to be unable to reregister because of stringent legal requirements under “laws” in the “DPR” and “LPR” that mirrored Russian legislation preventing or discouraging reregistration of many religious communities (see the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/).
Freedom of Association
The constitution and law provide for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
Human rights organizations reported an increase in malicious actions, including attacks against activists (53 incidents in the first six months of the year, up slightly from 50 in the same period of 2020). International and domestic human rights NGOs remained concerned regarding the lack of accountability for attacks on members of civil society organizations, which they believed had created a climate of impunity.
In one case, Oleksandr Sylchenko, a Kyiv-based advocate for the protection of public spaces from illegal development, reported that in the early hours of June 22, two individuals set his car on fire near his apartment in what he described as an arson attack in retaliation for his activism. Sylchenko claimed nearby surveillance cameras recorded two young men pouring flammable liquid on the car and lighting it. Police classified the case as “intentional damage of property” and opened an investigation. Sylchenko claimed that days after the arson, he received an anonymous call from an individual who warned him, “If you keep shoving your nose into other people’s business, then you should be ready for problems.” As of early September, the case remained under investigation.
There were reports the government targeted activists for raids, arrests, or prosecution in retaliation for their professional activity. For example on March 24, police placed activist Roman Ratushnyy under house arrest on charges of “hooliganism” in connection with a March 20 rally at which protesters vandalized the Office of the President building. Human rights groups claimed police failed to provide any evidence of Ratushnyy’s involvement in the vandalism and were retaliating against him for his efforts to defend Protasiv Yar, a natural reserve in Kyiv, from illegal real estate development; Ratushnyy had previously reported receiving death threats from supporters of the illegal development. Authorities reportedly classified certain aspects of the investigation and withheld information from the defense. Fourteen Ukrainian human rights groups signed a letter condemning the charges against Ratushnyy as persecution in retaliation for civic activism. Ratushnyy was released from house arrest on April 21. As of early September, the case was being heard in a Kyiv court.
There were reports that unknown actors initiated violent attacks against activists because of their involvement in civil society organizations. For example on January 19, several individuals in balaclavas attacked a 15-year-old left-wing activist in Lviv. The victim claimed the attackers hit him several times on the head with a hammer and stabbed him in the leg. Representatives of the anarchist organization Black Flag, of which the boy was a member, claimed he was targeted for his anti-right-wing activities, which included spray painting to cover far-right graffiti and criticizing far-right groups on social networks.
According to the HRMMU, in the territories controlled by Russia-led forces, domestic and international civil society organizations, including human rights defenders, could not operate freely. Residents informed the HRMMU they were being prosecuted (or feared being prosecuted) by the “ministry of state security” for their pro-Ukrainian views or previous affiliation with Ukrainian NGOs. If human rights groups attempted to work in those areas, they faced significant harassment and intimidation. The HRMMU also noted some civil society organizations run by Russia-led forces appeared to require certain persons, such as public-sector employees, to join.
f. Protection of Refugees
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to IDPs, refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern. International and domestic organizations reported the system for protecting asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern did not operate effectively.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a legal system for providing protection to refugees. Protection for refugees and asylum seekers was insufficient, however, due to gaps in the law and the system of implementation. According to the State Migration Service, the number of refugees and asylum seekers had decreased. The country was a transit and destination country for asylum seekers and refugees, principally from Afghanistan, Syria, and Tajikistan.
Many Belarusian nationals either were forcibly exiled by Belarusian authorities or voluntarily fled to Ukraine seeking refuge from the Lukashenka regime’s violent crackdown on civil society in Belarus following election-related mass protests surrounding the fraudulent presidential election there in August 2020. In October 2020 President Zelenskyy signed a decree that relaxed requirements for certain categories of Belarusian citizens seeking residence. The decree directed the Cabinet of Ministers to extend the time allotted for temporary stays for Belarusian citizen entrepreneurs and information technology specialists from 90 to 180 days as well as to simplify procedures for obtaining a residence permit. Some human rights groups claimed the low number of Belarusian asylum cases relative to the number of Belarusians seeking refuge in Ukraine was due in part to inefficiencies in Ukraine’s asylum system, specifically the inability to lawfully work while in asylum procedures.
In in August and September, authorities facilitated the evacuation of hundreds of Afghans to Ukraine through flights from Kabul. Arrivals had access to asylum procedures or short-term humanitarian visas. They were initially accommodated in closed migration facilities for COVID-19 screening and were offered access to a COVID-19 vaccine. UNHCR provided counseling, and those who registered for asylum with the government were eligible for additional humanitarian assistance.
Human rights groups noted that the refugee law falls short of international standards due to its restrictive definition of a refugee. The law permits authorities to reject many asylum applications without a thorough case assessment. In other instances government officials declined to accept initial asylum applications without a legal basis, leaving asylum seekers without documentation and vulnerable to frequent police stops, fines, detention, and exploitation. Asylum seekers in detention centers were sometimes unable to apply for refugee status within the prescribed time limits and had limited access to legal and other assistance. Asylum seekers have five days to appeal an order of detention or deportation.
A lack of access to qualified interpreters also hampered the full range of asylum procedures. International observers noted that while the government allocated sufficient funding for interpretation, there was a shortage of interpreters trained in some of the languages required by asylum seekers.
Refoulement: There were reports the government deported individuals to a country where their life or freedom would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion. In December 2020 the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine reportedly detained Turkish citizens Salih Fidan and Samet Gure in the town of Rava-Ruska, alleging that they were attempting to illegally cross the Ukraine-Poland border. According to Fidan, authorities forced them to sign a statement accepting their guilt in exchange for a guarantee of being returned to Erbil, Iraq, and transferred them to Kyiv Boryspil Airport. On January 5, Ukrainian authorities reportedly forced Gure and Fidan to board a flight to Istanbul. On January 6, Turkish media reported Gure and Fidan were detained upon arrival in Turkey and were being processed by the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office. Human rights activists condemned the deportations of Fidan and Gure as a violation of international nonrefoulement principles, noting they were unlikely to receive a fair trial and could face torture in Turkey due to their involvement in the opposition Gulen Movement in Turkey, which the Turkish government banned and deemed a “terrorist” organization.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: Authorities frequently detained asylum seekers for extended periods.
Employment: The law provided refugees access to employment, but bureaucratic administrative obstacles and lack of employer awareness regarding refugee employment rights contributed to some working illegally, increasing their risk of exploitation.
Access to Basic Services: The national plan on the integration of refugees adopted by the government did not allocate resources for its implementation.
Temporary accommodation centers had a reception capacity of 421 persons, which the government temporarily increased to accommodate Afghan refugees. Asylum seekers living outside an official temporary accommodation center often experienced difficulties obtaining residence registration, and authorities regularly imposed a substantial fine because they lacked registration. According to the State Migration Service, refugees could receive residence registration at homeless shelters for up to six months.
According to UNHCR, gaps in housing and social support for unaccompanied children left many without access to state-run accommodation centers or children’s shelters. Many children had to rely on informal networks for food, shelter, and other needs and remained vulnerable to abuse, trafficking, and other forms of exploitation. UNHCR noted a lack of educational programs and vocational activities for those in detention for extended periods.
Temporary Protection: The government provided temporary protection (“complementary protection”) to individuals who may not qualify as refugees. As of August 31, authorities had provided complementary protection to 38 persons.