A few weeks ago I sent this letter out to the media. I hoped that someone would support my cause. However, the responses I got were disappointing. "It is hard to advocate for only one person, you know," read one reply. "We can't take sides in a political issue like that," read another one. I found two things astonishing. First, it is sad how the life of one person doesn't count much these days. The media love depersonalized stories involving hundreds of people, even if the issue is superficial. But if the problem involves only a handful of ordinary people, they suddenly lose interest. Indeed, it is "only" a handful of people. Second, how does one decide where do draw the line between politics and humanitarianism? The issue of refugees, so embedded into the language of the UN agencies and academic discourse on development, all of a sudden turns into a merely "political" concern.
Dear Sir or Madam,
My name is Anna Malinovskaya. I am a contributing reporter to the U.S.-based organization Voice for Human Rights. I would like to bring to your attention the story of John, a Nigerian refugee smuggled to Ukraine and presently in danger of indefinite imprisonment. I had a chance to interview him after he had been temporarily released from one of the Ukraine’s detention centers. During the interview, I learned that he was also brutally mistreated by the detention center authorities. I hope you will take the time to learn about the horrific experience of an African refugee in Eastern Europe.
By raising awareness about this story, I hope that justice will be served for John, and future refugees will avoid similar abuses from the government of Ukraine. I also hope that by publicizing this tragic personal account, I will attract the public attention to the Ukraine’s inhuman treatment of foreign nationals in violation of a number of international human rights agreements, principally the UN Convention on Refugees, by which the country is formally bound. Although striving to enter EU and NATO, Ukraine’s authorities forget that upholding the high standards of human rights is one of the essential pre-requisites for membership in those two political alliances.
Please find my press release below.
Note: John is not the interviewee’s real name. In order to preserve the refugee’s confidentiality, his name, age, country of origin, and exact dates of arrest and release were changed. In order to confirm his identity, the interviewee provided me with copies of his refugee certificate and his registration with UNHCR. He also provided me with photos he took with his cell phone at the Zhuravichi Migrant Accommodation Center.
African Refugees Tortured And Indefinitely Detained in Ukraine
November 16, 2012 – "John," 36, from Nigeria, prosecuted in Nigeria on religious grounds, fled his country in 2005. A Nigerian smuggler he met in Kenya had promised to send him to Western Europe via Russia but, on the way, John was abandoned in Ukraine in September of 2011. He was then arrested and imprisoned at the Zhuravichi Migrant Accommodation Center for one year. He says that in the detention center both he and other refugees were mistreated and tortured. The breach in Ukraine’s legislature concerning refugees means that John, recently released after his one-year term in the detention center but left without any legal assistance, runs the risk of getting re-arrested and put into the detention center for another year and perhaps indefinitely.
John was incarcerated in Nigeria for practicing the Pentecostal Christianity. Having escaped from prison, he first fled to Sudan but, out of fear of being deported to Nigeria, he fled to Kenya in 2006. In the fall of 2011, smugglers first brought him to Russia and then to Ukraine, which was supposed to be the transit point for John’s passage to Western Europe. There he met five other Nigerians aged 18 to 39. After John had paid $15,000 to his smuggler, he and the five other Nigerians were left by the smuggler and soon arrested by the police who found them without any identification documents. According to the reports by the Amnesty International and the Human Rights Watch, and as confirmed by John, there are over 100 African refugees detained in the Zhuravichi center, all of whom are in a similar situation.
John testifies that security guards in the detention center not only regularly search the rooms of refugees, but they also beat the detainees: “… they beat up the migrants and also they take you to the isolated room and they beat you up there … I myself was beaten by the militia and guards of the prison two times, one time they came to our room and they beat up all of us who were together in the room, at that time there were eight guards including the director of the detention center, and the second time I was beaten by the guards while I was walking to see a doctor… one month ago they took our mobile phones by force…”
John’s case is a political stalemate. Ukraine, bound by its international human rights agreements, cannot return refugees home. However, the government is also unwilling to grant them asylum. John’s application for asylum was rejected, which is what usually happens with most African applicants for a refugee status in Ukraine, as noticed by the Human Rights Watch. The scenario for most detainees at the Zhuravichi center, confirmed by the Human Rights Watch, is the following: refugees get arrested for one year, are released for a few days, and then get re-arrested for another year, indefinitely.
Without documents, money, or any legal assistance, John is wandering the streets of city X, Ukraine, afraid that he may get arrested again. He sought support from UNHCR, but was referred to the Ukraine Migration Service which had rejected his asylum application earlier. By raising awareness about this cause, we can press the government of Ukraine to honor its obligations under the international human rights agreements it signed.
John was interviewed by Anna Malinovskaya, a contributing reporter to the U.S.-based organization Voice for Human Rights. The mission of the Voice for Human Rights is to provide awareness of human rights through education, advocacy, and the daily dissemination of information. The organization’s website is http://voiceforhumanrights.org/.
I am no longer a contributing reporter for the Voice for Human Rights. I now hold the position of Deputy Director, Operations and External Relations at the Voice for Human Rights.