Guest post by Yulia Ioffe, DPhil candidate in Law, Faculty of Law, University of Oxford. Yulia’s research examines the institutional fragmentation of international law related to asylum-seeking children. This is the sixth instalment of Border Criminologies’ themed series on Current Legal Issues on Migration organised by Ana Aliverti and Celia Rooney.​

European Union countries have experienced a sharp increase in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, which doubled in 2014, and quadrupled in 2015 reaching 96,465 children. By contrast, Ukraine has observed a considerable decrease in the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum. In 2015, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Office in Ukraine registered only 16 unaccompanied children, whereas between 2007 and 2013 the number fluctuated between 60-150 children a year. This decline has not been reflected in the general number of individuals seeking asylum in Ukraine, which has remained around 1,500 asylum applications per year on average.

Photo: UNHCR Ukraine
This decrease in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, however, might not entirely reflect the real figures in Ukraine (which could be substantially higher), especially taking into account several reported incidents of children declaring to be adults and as a result not being formally recognized as minors. This phenomenon is primarily attributed to the specific challenges faced by children in accessing the asylum system and enjoying particular rights, including freedom of movement, education, and healthcare in Ukraine.

Despite the fact that Ukraine has undertaken substantial reforms of its asylum system, and has become a party to the main international legal instruments concerning unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, these challenges have persisted. They arise mainly from the gaps in implementation of the relevant legislation. Until recently, unaccompanied children encountered serious obstacles in applying for asylum, often because the authorities did not appoint a legal guardian. With new legislation that clarifies the legal circumstances for the procedure to appoint a legal guardian, the government has assigned legal guardians to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children, but the procedure remains unnecessarily lengthy.

Similarly, the new legislation sets out a requirement to place unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in children’s institutions (shelters, orphanages, and boarding schools) to avoid placing them together with adults in temporary accommodation centres for asylum-seekers and refugees. In reality, however, these are semi-closed institutions, designed for younger Ukrainian children rather than asylum-seeking teenagers, where the freedom of movement is unreasonably restricted and the personnel are not trained to meet adequately the needs of this particular group of children. In order to accelerate the determination of refugee status and avoid being held in these institutions, many unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Ukraine declare themselves to be of an age to enter the asylum procedure as adults. Since the majority of children perceive Ukraine only as a country of transit, this way they can continue their journey more quickly to their final destination.

Concurrently, there are a number of factors that might in fact have decreased the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in Ukraine, including changes in the smuggler or migration routes, large-scale internal displacement in Ukraine, changes in the origins of the asylum-seekers arriving to Ukraine, and low asylum recognition rates.

For many years Ukraine has been the main transit country used by migrants (including unaccompanied asylum-seeking children) to reach the EU through its eastern borders. In 2015, a new migration route emerged within the Eastern Borders route through Russia’s land borders with Norway and Finland. This has led to the dramatic rise in the number of asylum applications in Norway and Finland, including the applications lodged by unaccompanied children. Specifically, the number of applications by unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Norway increased from 940 applications in 2014 to 5,050 in 2015; and in Finland – from 195 to 2,535, respectively.

The preference of arguably safer migration routes, bypassing Ukraine, seems even more compelling, taking into account the unrest in Crimea, the war in eastern Ukraine, and a general political turmoil in the country starting in 2013. As a result of these events more than 1.6 million Ukrainians, including more than 215,000 children, have been internally displaced. The children both nationals and asylum-seekers, thus, have been put at risk of both direct conflict-related injuries and the knock-on effects of the conflict, such as disease outbreaks and access to clean water.

Over the last five years, the top countries of origin of asylum-seekers in Ukraine have been Afghanistan, Syria, the Russian Federation, Somalia, and Kyrgyzstan, while the majority of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children originate from Afghanistan and Somalia. The most significant shift in the citizenship composition of asylum-seekers has been a gradual decrease in the percentage of applications from Somalian asylum-seekers, which constituted 20% of the total number of asylum applications in 2011, and only 8% in 2015; consequently, also bringing down the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum.

Photo: UNHCR Ukraine
At the same time, the asylum recognition rate (i.e. the share of positive decisions in the total number of asylum decisions for each stage of the asylum procedure) for Somalis has been particularly low (with the highest, 15.5%, recorded in 2012, compared to 57% in EU countries) in the context of an already low general asylum recognition rate in Ukraine. The concerns that many individuals with international protection needs, including Somalian asylum-seekers, cannot find protection in Ukraine may have further discouraged children from seeking asylum in Ukraine.

It is unclear whether all or some of these factors have indeed caused the decline in the number of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in Ukraine. Yet they do reflect the circumstances sufficient to deter unaccompanied children from travelling to and through Ukraine. When unaccompanied children happen to seek asylum in Ukraine, many of them are compelled to pretend to be adults due to the shortcomings of the asylum system. It is therefore evident that Ukraine has failed to comply fully with its international obligations, particularly the Convention on the Rights of the Child, as the way the domestic asylum system functions in practice clearly does not afford a more protective regime to unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. 

Note: This post is made possible thanks to the information provided by UNHCR Ukraine. This post does not represent the official views of UNHCR.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style)

Ioffe, Y. (2017) Seeking Asylum in Ukraine: Unaccompanied Children Forced to ‘Age’ Faster. Available at: https://www.law.ox.ac.uk/research-subject-groups/centre-criminology/centreborder-criminologies/blog/2017/02/seeking-asylum (Accessed [date]).