The Great Exodus: Ukraine's Refugees Flee to Russia

Perm may not be on the radar of most Westerners, but it has become a major hub for Ukrainians seeking a safe haven in Russia.

The fact that most of the Ukrainians who fled their country last year went to Russia may come as a surprise to some. The reasons for this are interesting and have been skillfully examined in recent articles. Where are the Ukrainian refugees going in Russia and what awaits them when they arrive? How are they being treated and what do they think of their new surroundings? We took a closer look at these questions in Perm, a city and region in the Ural Mountains, which in 2014 became one of the major hubs in Russia for Ukrainian refugees.

“Where is Perm?”

Perm may not be on the radar of most Western readers, with the exception of fans of Sergei Diaghilev or Boris Pasternak, who each lived in the Perm region for a time, or those familiar with the dissident movement. Perm-36 included some of the harshest labor camps where the Soviet government sent political prisoners during the crackdown in the 1960s and early 1970s. The last political prisoner held there was released only in the late 1980s. The thought of seeking refuge in a place with such a dark history might sound strange, but this question is not likely in the forefront of the refugees’ minds. Instead, a more common thought might be “Where is Perm?” as one refugee in Donetsk asked in Andrew Roth’s article last fall.

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There are several reasons why so many refugees from Eastern Ukraine have ended up in Perm, which is not one of Russia’s most well-known cities, despite its claims to fame and infamy, noted above. First, while it’s among Russia’s 15 most populous cities, its smaller size relative to Moscow and St. Petersburg allows it to accept refugees from Ukraine, while the aforementioned metropolises have already reached their refugee quotas. Cities like Perm receive federal funding to offer assistance with housing and employment. The budget for assistance to Ukrainian refugees was recently announced, and Perm krai (krai is one of the types of administrative divisions of territories in Russia) is to receive 34,516,000 rubles ($520,000) in 2015.

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Second, until 2013, Perm was the only Russian city that had a center for receiving refugees and asylum-seekers from abroad (now there are three). Russia’s judicial practice for providing refugee status to asylum-seekers was even developed in Perm. Perm’s history of taking in refugees goes at least as far back as World War II, when it received mass evacuations from the more Western regions of Russia. This unique aspect of its history, as well as the fact that it has long been a multiconfessional region, helps cultivate a more tolerant attitude in Perm for refugees and people from elsewhere.

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Third, Perm’s geographic location is a convenient transfer point from which Ukrainian refugees can move further into the country: either to the north of Russia, to the Yamalo-Nenets region, for example, where more lucrative employment opportunities exist, or to other Russian cities where their relatives live.

Getting to Perm

The majority of Ukrainian refugees come to Perm in groups organized by the Russian Federal Migration Service (FMS). Refugees themselves decide which city or region to go to prior to leaving Ukraine. Often they are approached in a refugee camp and given a list of cities in Russia from which they can choose. As one couple from Donetsk described this process, before they left they were promised clothing and assistance with housing in Perm, but the reality of what refugees find upon arrival varies widely, as will be discussed below.

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Numbers

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, as of December 2014, upwards of 430,000 Ukrainians had applied for refugee status or other forms of legal residency in Russia. The refugees who come unofficially, i.e. not registering with the FMS, make it difficult to count the total number of Ukrainian refugees in the country, however. For Perm krai, the regional FMS office reports that 11,124 refugees registered there in 2014. Among them, 2,454 families (3,307 people) applied for temporary asylum status and only 11 families (14 people) applied for official refugee status.

Housing

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