The UN has urged Ukraine to take a “compassionate and humane” approach to the enforcement of martial law after reports of Ukrainian men defying orders to stay and attempting to cross into neighboring countries to claim asylum.
Men of conscription age, aged 18 to 60, were banned from leaving Ukraine after the Russian invasion on 24 February but there have been multiple reports of men with Ukrainian citizenship trying to cross into Hungary, Poland and Romania. It is unclear how many have been allowed to pass.
The Ukrainian government is not forcing men to fight, only remain in the country, but there are fears of enforced conscription if the violence continues.
According to reports from aid workers, many of those trying to leave were not born in Ukraine and were in the country for work or family reasons when the war began.
The Guardian spoke with one man who was born in Belarus and lived in Germany before taking Ukrainian citizenship to work in the country.
“I am not from Ukraine originally and this is not my war,” says Alexander, who did not want his real name to be used. “I lived in Germany and Poland and I’m a holder of a Polish residence card, which means I can live in Poland for up to 10 years. But because I’m a Ukrainian citizen, I can’t leave. I’m desperate. I am not a coward but I have no blood connection with Ukraine. I managed to talk to the Polish authorities who said they cannot do anything because it is up to the Ukrainian authorities. I have a wife and son but she doesn’t want to leave without me.”
He said he didn’t want to try to cross the border into Poland for fear of being arrested by Ukrainian authorities.
I know many [men] are attempting to cross. Many of them are paying smugglers to cross. I heard some people made it to Poland but the majority failed. They have been stopped or arrested. And I don’t know about the destiny of those who have been arrested.”
More than 1 million Ukrainians have fled to Poland since the start of the Russian invasion, including 142,300 on Sunday alone, the Polish border force has said.
The village of Medyka, in south-east Poland, is the main border crossing with Ukraine. Thousands of refugees are crossing every day by bus, car and on foot, mostly women and children. The mass exodus is causing severe queues at the border, with lines of people and cars stretching to 14km and waiting times of up to 40 hours.
According to refugees on the Ukrainian side of the border, waiting times are being exacerbated by the Ukrainian authorities, which are checking everyone trying to cross to ensure no men with Ukrainian nationality are passing through.
“We recognize that states have a right to self-defense under both the UN charter and customary international law and that states may also require their citizens to perform military service under certain criteria and conditions, in line with international law,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, head of news and media at UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
“At the same time… we appreciate these are very challenging circumstances and we would urge a compassionate and humane approach to those who are seeking to flee and are in need of safety and protection.”
After martial law was introduced, the Ukrainian interior minister posted on the Telegram messaging app: “Today is the moment when every Ukrainian who can protect his home must take up arms. Not just to help our soldiers, but to cleanse Ukraine of the enemy, once and for all.”
Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men have volunteered to fight since the Russian invasion began.
The Polish border force, under enormous pressure in what has become Europe’s fastest-moving refugee crisis since the end of the second world war, says the Ukrainian ban doesn’t apply to Poland and the country is happy to welcome any person leaving Ukraine, regardless of gender. Authorities in Poland also suggested that Ukrainian men who have crossed the border did not need to apply for asylum.
“For us, everybody is equal at the border,” said Piotr Zakielarz, spokesperson for the force’s southern department.
Zakielarz said that, so far, Polish border authorities had no idea how many men had crossed. “We don’t go through the statistics. At this moment, I don’t care about the statistics.”
Under Ukrainian law there are exceptions to the ban on men leaving the country. Male Ukrainian nationals can cross the border if they are financially supporting three or more children under the age of 18, are single fathers of children under 18, or have children or are guardians of children with disabilities.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism