Sweden sees Ukrainian asylum seeker boom

Sweden sees Ukrainian asylum seeker boom
The Maidan Square in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: Gustav Sjöholm/TT
Sweden saw a huge spike in Ukrainians seeking asylum in 2014, with nearly eight times more applicants than the previous year, according to Eurostat data analyzed by The Local.

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1,320 people from Ukraine sought asylum in Sweden last year, compared to 170 applicants in 2013, before the bloody conflict with Russia began.

The jump represents a 770 percent increase.

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, according to data released by Eurostat last week.

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.

READ MORE: Russia blames Sweden for Ukraine crisis

A post on the Facebook page of the Russian Embassy in Stockholm earlier in March responded to criticism from Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström by blaming Sweden for the conflict in the Ukraine, saying it was caused by "the will of the West, not least Sweden as an instigator of the EU's Eastern Partnership, to do everything to push Kiev into the European Union".

"Many Ukrainian nationals, who applied for asylum in Sweden, were those, who were already in a European country, for example, working or studying (sur place protection seekers), when the situation in Ukraine had changed," Zelvenska explained.

The Ukrainian embassy in Stockholm was unavailable for comment this week, telling The Local that its current ambassador was out of the country, with a new one scheduled to start next month.

The Ukrainian community appears to be putting its mark on the Swedish capital. Online groups for Ukrainian expats are growing in size, several Ukrainian musicians are scheduled to visit the city this year and the first Nordic Ukrainian Film Festival opens on April 20th.

Of those who applied for asylum across the EU in 2014, 650 Ukrainians received positive outcomes on their first application decision. 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.

Sweden rejected eight times as many Ukrainian applicants in their first instances as they accepted, with just 20 receiving positive outcomes compared to 160 rejections.

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.”

Germany was the country that received the highest number of Ukrainian asylum requests at 2,705, Eurostat reported – 18 times greater than the number in 2013, 150. They accepted 20 in the first instance, but rejected another 45.

But the numbers have so far decreased this year, Zelvenska told The Local.

"Recent number of asylum applications by Ukrainian asylum seekers in Europe indeed increased in 2014, but have so far been decreasing in 2015.  In general, the numbers still remain quite low, for example, in February 2015 only 125 Ukrainians applied for asylum in Europe," she said.

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.