Lawyer Oleg Palii has over 24 years of experience in the field of asylum and is the executive director of the Law Center of Advocates (Centrul de Drept al Avocaților). Since its founding in 1998, the Law Center of Advocates has been the only legal partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Moldova.
The Center’s team provides free legal aid to asylum seekers, refugees, beneficiaries of humanitarian protection, foreigners, stateless persons, promotes their rights, trains and assists all actors involved in the Moldovan asylum system but also monitors the policies, legislation and activities of the state institutions in this area.
Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, the lawyers of the Law Center of Advocates have been at Moldovan border crossings to monitor how refugee rights are respected and to provide them with legal aid and advice. Out of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who have entered Moldova during this period, about 90 thousand are still in the territory of Moldova, and only 8 out of 100 people have applied for asylum, i.e. just over 7 thousand. What happens when the legal term of stay of 90 days expires, what legalization solutions are there in place for these people, and why there is such a big discrepancy between these two figures, as well as many other issues are explained by Oleg Palii in the following discussion.
Cu DREPTul: What does it mean to be a refugee, is there a single interpretation or is there a difference between the legal definition and what people understand it to be?
Oleg Palii: Of course, there is a difference between the legal term of refugee and its perception, because, in fact, refugees are all those fleeing war now, in a situation that is well known to us all, but legally speaking, a refugee is the one who flees persecution from their country of origin on the grounds of being persecuted politically, religiously, racially, nationally, or for belonging to a separate social group – that is, if we speak about the legal term of refugee. Other persons who do not fit in the term of refugee may enjoy other forms of protection. In the Republic of Moldova, this is called humanitarian protection, in the countries of the European Union it is called subsidiary protection. In case of a major inflow, which we have today in the Republic of Moldova, refugees from Ukraine can be granted protection and I believe they are to be granted temporary protection.
Law no. 270 of 2008 on Asylum in the Republic of Moldova provides for such a possibility – in the event of a large inflow of refugees, they shall be granted temporary protection.
Cu DREPTul: Who is considered a refugee? Now, in the context of the war in Ukraine, are all considered refugees or how is this status obtained?
Oleg Palii: Official refugee status is obtained through a procedure that begins with the application for asylum. Out of the more than 440 thousand people who have come from Ukraine to the Republic of Moldova since the beginning of the war, since February 24, today we have in our territory – and I risk being wrong because the figure is constantly changing – a little over 97 thousand Ukrainians, and a little over 6,000 of them have applied for asylum. Hypothetically, only those who have applied for asylum can hope to receive a refugee status.
Cu DREPTul: What about the others, tens of thousands, after the expiration of the legal residence term, i.e. after three months from entering the country?
The others, I assume, will receive temporary protection status. Why? Because, at some point, the term of their legal stay in the territory of Moldova expires and the Moldovan authorities will have to make a decision: what do we do with them, do we return them? No, because it is a war, and so, we need to legalize their stay. Do we process 100,000 or 90,000 applications for residence permits? No, because we do not have the physical capacity to process such a large number of applications. Do we process 90,000 asylum applications? No, because, again, we lack the physical capacity. In such case, I see granting them temporary protection, by a government decision, as provided by the Asylum Law, as the only solution.
Cu DREPTul: Let us go back to the application procedure. By the way, what is its correct name?
Oleg Palii: …asylum application. Why is it called an asylum application, not a temporary or humanitarian protection application, or a refugee application? Because the Bureau for Migration and Asylum, the authority that examines asylum applications, examines all these forms of protection in one procedure. So, a person applies for asylum and they check which form of protection suits them in legal terms, which form of protection matches the situation of that citizen and grants them the most correct one in legal terms and the most correct one in terms of the situation of each asylum seeker.
Cu DREPTul: How cumbersome is this procedure? How difficult is it to obtain this status?
Oleg Palii: It is not difficult but it normally lasts until the war and, according to the Asylum Law, from one to six months to issue an asylum decision. Why so long? Because the authority has to analyze not only the person’s application, but also the situation in the applicant’s country of origin, to see if the application corresponds to the situation there. Okay, now in the situation with Ukraine, there is not much to analyze i.e. things are on the surface, we see them every day in news and we understand what is happening there. However, normally, when you consider an individual application, you have one to six months to make an informed decision.
Cu DREPTul: In this case, of the people from Ukraine, what differentiates those who have applied for asylum from those who have not?
Oleg Palii: Currently, there are no major differences, because the Commission for Emergency Situations decided as early as at the beginning of the war to allow Ukrainians now coming from Ukraine to be employed without additional permits and formalities. They can get a job, receive income, obtain social security and health insurance etc. In this situation now, an asylum application does not give privileges to an asylum seeker from Ukraine over those who did not apply for asylum. Probably, if we look minutely at all the points in the rights of an asylum seeker, we can find something, but in general, the rights are the same now.
Cu DREPTul: All Ukrainians entering Moldova now have virtually equal rights regardless of whether or not they have applied for asylum. Isn’t this discrimination in relation to other foreigners who came not in the context of a war?
Oleg Palii: No, I do not consider it discrimination, because we are in a situation of an extremely high inflow for the Republic of Moldova, a flow of people fleeing a country where there is a war. Normally, before the war, the Republic of Moldova had 40, 50, 70, or 120 asylum applications per year. The figure of just over 200 asylum applications was reached in 2014, when there were several armed conflicts in the area, when the war in Syria and the war in Donbas began, which continues to this day. Back then, we had the largest inflow of asylum seekers; in Moldova’s history before then there had been just over 200 people.
Two hundred asylum applications and 100 thousand asylum applications is a big difference, and that is why they have been granted these facilities now by a decision of the Commission for Emergency Situations, because it is technically impossible to process so many asylum applications in such a short time.
Cu DREPTul: In this process of dealing with a large wave of refugees, what has played a positive role and what have been obvious shortcomings of the system?
Oleg Palii: First, I should mention the openness of our authorities, and this has been mentioned by everyone from outside who came here to help us. They all said they had not seen such an openness from the authorities in any conflict in which they had worked. I am saying ‘conflict’ as those I meet are people with working experience in managing major refugee flows i.e. officers of the UN Refugee Agency, of other UN agencies, and our colleagues from international NGOs who have previously worked both in the Syrian conflict and in the Bangladesh conflicts, and from other parts. So, everyone, unasked, mentions the unprecedented openness of the authorities to the international bodies that want to come and that come to help and to assist the refugees here.
This openness is probably the key to Republic of Moldova’s success or successes in managing this crisis. Which are the weaknesses? Anyone would have weaknesses, because no one was prepared.
There were made some contingency plans, some calculations and, you know, a plan A, plan B, plan C and so on, but no one expected such numbers of refugees in the territory of Moldova. Why didn’t we expect it? Because, as you know, Ukraine, like the Republic of Moldova, has a liberalized visa regime with the European Union. Ukraine has a direct border with several EU countries and we did expect refugees to come here from Ukraine, yet, we thought most of them would go directly to EU countries where the asylum system is more efficient, where the assistance of refugees is at a higher level than in the Republic of Moldova since Moldova does not have much funds for such situations.
Cu DREPTul: You mentioned the assistance provided by the Law Center of Advocates. What does it consist of? In what situations or cases is it offered and to whom?
Oleg Palii: Let us start from the border, because we have been at the border crossing points since 24 February. We then hired more border monitors and we are now in all the crossing points. In Palanca and Otaci we are every day, like at work. We visit other border crossing points once a day or every two days. We monitor and help our colleagues from the Border Police and from the Bureau for Migration and Asylum to identify asylum seekers who apply right at the crossing point. Sometimes, when there are a lot of asylum applications at the border, we help with translation, reception of applications, but our main task is monitoring, legal aid and advice to asylum seekers at the border.
If we talk about the accommodation centers for refugees, we have colleagues in practically all the centers and, again, in some centers we are every day and a number of counselors in the same center, depending on how many people are accommodated there. In other centers, we have a counselor visiting a number of small centers, if I can call them so, with less accommodation capacity. We may have not reached all of them yet, so, by these means, I would urge the administration of such centers again to contact us. Our phone numbers can be found on our website cda.md. We would send our experts there to advise the people.
We speak about the documents needed to travel farther, about those needed to go back, those needed to receive financial aid from the UN Refugee Agency, we speak about registration for routes, because I must say that some of our colleagues from the Law Center of Advocates register people wishing to go to a number of European countries. We have air routes, we organize bus routes, and we have our colleagues providing legal aid in the procedures for receiving financial assistance from the UN Refugee Agency. So, we cover only legal aid, but on several levels.
Cu DREPTul: What kind of problems do refugees go with to your colleagues? What are the most common ones?
Oleg Palii: The most common problem people report is the lack of identity documents and travel documents. That is because when they arrived in the Republic of Moldova, the Border Police executed the decision of the Commission for Emergency Situations of 24 February inst. and allowed people to enter with expired passports, with internal passports, and with expired internal passports, children with birth certificates or only with medical birth certificates. Some of them were allowed to enter Romania with these same documents. However, people want now to travel farther or to return to Ukraine, and the issue of appropriate documents for international travel, a passport, arises.
The Ukrainian Embassy should be involved more, but I understand they are overwhelmed by the situation and cannot issue so many passports, they cannot verify too much information; you realize that if you issue a birth certificate or a civil status certificate, or an identity document, you must contact the authorities in your country anyway. If a part of the country is under this war roller coaster, whom do you contact, who is there to answer such requests? So, the embassy is also overwhelmed by the situation. I was talking about documents, questions arise here, too…
You see, children have to graduate from school. There are children in graduation classes and they should take an exam. The Ministry of Education of Ukraine has said that children who are outside the country will have access to an online examination which they should take with the support of the country’s authorities or under the supervision of the authorities of the country in which they are located. Such questions arise. Questions also arise in healthcare, because there have already been people operated on, and in rehabilitation, and transferred to other countries for medical interventions, etc., jobs offered in this area, whatever you want, so all the questions that are related to a person’s life have been asked of my colleagues, and we have been in the situation where we had to answer such questions.
Cu DREPTul: You have been working with refugees for over 20 years, having previously represented them as a lawyer. Do you think they are rather a problem or an opportunity for the Republic of Moldova?
Oleg Palii: I would rather urge – and I have done it many times – for everyone to see it as an opportunity. A refugee comes not only with their problems but also with their knowledge and labour force. Some of them also come with their money which they would like and could invest here by opening a business or hiring other refugees who would receive salaries and pay taxes to the state, etc. We see this on the example of the refugees from Syria. Someone opened a car service and hired five other refugees and about five Moldovan citizens there.
The man did not come only with the problem, he came with the problem, because he fled the war, but he also came with opportunities. I urge the authorities and the entire population of the Republic of Moldova to see the refugees as an opportunity rather than a problem.
Cu DREPTul: When should we start talking about integration?
Oleg Palii: The day after the refugee comes, getting them a job is already local integration, placing their child in kindergarten is already integration, beginning language study is already a beginning of integration, and so on, and so forth. So, we can’t say that, you see, we stay here for half a year and then we start integrating. Integration starts as soon as they have entered the territory of the Republic of Moldova, they hear a word, learn an expression, a phrase, understand how to get to the district police, to the family doctor, where to go shopping – all this is integration.
Integration is a complex in which everyone has to make an effort, including the person who wants or needs to be integrated, because if the person does not want to and sits in their shell and waits for something from somewhere, they will never integrate.
We have the example of our compatriots who were born here and have lived a life here, and are not able even to say ‘Hello!’ in Romanian, and we have the refugees’ example. For instance, I know a family from Iraq, whose children spoke perfect Romanian in one year, I believe, and their parents spoke perfect Romanian in three years, they have jobs, children graduated with top marks from education facilities etc., so they are perfectly integrated.
Cu DREPTul: Do they feel integrated?
Oleg Palii: Obviously, you are never at home if you are not at home and, obviously, everyone longs for his or her country. I was talking to someone from Afghanistan, who married here; his children are here, apparently, everything is good and beautiful, even very good. At one point, he told me that he had a friend in a European country who invited him over, as he had a very big business there and offered him a part of that business, so that he could live better. I asked him why he did not leave, and he said something I remembered forever: “My children were born here and I don’t want my children to live far away from their country; it’s enough that I live far away from mine.”
Cu DREPTul: In relation to the systemic issues but also the ones related to legislation, which would be the main ones in the asylum system area? Where is room for more work?
Oleg Palii: Speaking about the problems or potential problems of the Moldovan asylum system, we do not have much to discuss, because the Moldovan asylum system is built according to the European asylum system. The 1951 Refugee Convention which is an international, global convention, as well as the European Asylum Directives on the Reception of Refugees, etc., are also transposed into our Law on Asylum. So, from a legislative point of view, we are OK. As in many others, we are doing very well in terms of legislation. Speaking about the rights of people who have received a form of protection, we have currently reached such a level when refugees, beneficiaries of humanitarian protection (nota bene, humanitarian, not temporary protection, as there are two forms of protection) have the same rights as Moldovan citizens in the social area, in healthcare, they have labour rights, and so on.
Cu DREPTul: How does it happen in practice?
Oleg Palii: This is exactly how it happens in a practical way; I do not see big problems here. Speaking about asylum seekers i.e. people who are in the first step, from submitting an asylum application to receiving a form of protection, it seems that everything is rather good in terms of the rights of such people. I would object to their health insurance. Those who are employed benefit from the compulsory health insurance; children seeking asylum receive health insurance from the government, similarly to all children citizens of the Republic of Moldova; there are no questions here. Asylum seekers enjoy the right to education under the same conditions as citizens of the Republic of Moldova, including higher education. Tuition fees are not charged of them as of foreign students but as of Moldovan citizens. We, again, are doing very well here; I do not quite see systemic problems in the asylum system in a normal situation, without a war at the border.