Ukrainian refugees in Russia ‘lose hope’ of receiving payment promised by Putin
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — As Russian forces pounded Mariupol with heavy artillery, reducing the city to rubble, Anastasia fled the Ukrainian city with her son to the only destination it seemed possible to reach: Russia.
With little money and few possessions in hand, she waited impatiently to receive the payment of 10,000 rubles ($185) that Russian President Vladimir Putin had promised Ukrainian refugees even before he launched a full-scale invasion. nationwide on February 24.
The money would help cover their basic needs for a short time while she and her son hunkered down in St. Petersburg, waiting for the war to end. Three months after arriving there, she still has not received payment.
Workers at the local government center who deal with these issues “said they didn’t know anything”, Anastasia said. Like other refugees RFE/RL spoke to for this story, she did not want her last name published for fear of repercussions.
“[They said]wait, at some point they will give it to you,” she said.
Anastasia is by no means the only one complaining.
Svetlana Tikhomirova, a journalist from St. Petersburg who volunteers to help Ukrainian refugees, said recently that around 90% of those who arrived in the Leningrad region – which surrounds the city of St. Petersburg but does not not include – have yet to receive their promised payment.
In a letter to Putin in mid-June and posted on social media, Tikhomirova said Ukrainian refugees in Russia were caught in a vicious cycle.
Without payment, many don’t have enough money to pay for services – such as document translation – essential to receiving a Russian passport and a job.
Tikhomirova is one of hundreds of people across Russia helping Ukrainian refugees with money, food and other essentials.
The volunteers as well as the refugees have created their own social media chats to share updates and concerns, one of which is the late payment.
“The situation in [provincial Russia] is far more serious than in Moscow and St. Petersburg, according to the volunteers’ accounts,” she wrote in the letter, adding that in more remote areas, “the volunteers themselves are unable to provide support to the refugees because of the decline in the standard of living – – people are starving in the direct sense of the word.
Contacted by RFE/RL, Tikhomirova declined to comment on the letter.
His colleague, Galina Artemenko, said in a Telegram post that the situation is “exactly” as described in the letter.
Their comments appear to contradict Russia’s Emergency Situations Ministry, which oversees payments to refugees.
An unidentified ministry official told state media on June 7 that 301,510 Ukrainian refugees — nearly four out of five of those the official said had applied — had received the 10,000 ruble payment. More recent figures were not immediately available.
There are around 1.3 million Ukrainian refugees in Russia, according to the UN, while the Russian government put the number at 2.1 million, including 340,000 children. Kyiv has accused Moscow of forcibly taking Ukrainian citizens to Russia.
Most Ukrainian refugees are financially vulnerable pensioners and women with children, in part because many men in parts of Ukraine’s Donbass region that were held by Russian-backed separatists long before the February invasion are remained – voluntarily or not – to fight.
One expert told RFE/RL that red tape and bureaucratic travel could undermine hope. For Natalia Yurchenko, who fled mainland Ukraine to the Russian-controlled Crimean peninsula with her husband, it has happened before.
They have been waiting for three months for their payment to arrive.
“Our family no longer hopes for the promised payment,” she told RFE/RL. “We really needed the money. We had nothing to live on and we had to sell some of our possessions.
A payment of 10,000 rubles would not last long in the largest cities of Russia anyway. Using the Moscow metro would consume a quarter of that amount in a month.
One of the claims Putin used to justify the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine was that Russian-speakers in Donbas needed the protection of the Kyiv government, which he falsely claimed was committing genocide there.
The Russian offensive destroyed much of Donbass, leaving many Russian speakers who survived the onslaught without homes, possessions or jobs.
Six days before the February 24 invasion, Putin ordered his government to pay each Donbass refugee 10,000 rubles to help them “settle in a new place”. [and] purchase all necessary items at this time.
The Russian government allocated 5 billion rubles before the start of the war for refugees, implying that it was planning for up to 500,000 refugees.
Russia’s inability to make payments on time despite early preparation may reflect the Kremlin’s expectation of a quick and victorious war that would generate far fewer refugees. It can also be a reflection of a notoriously heavy bureaucracy.
At a meeting in early May with 147 refugees staying at Mechta (Dream), a children’s camp outside Moscow, Nina Ostanina, a Communist Party deputy to Russia’s lower house of parliament, the State Duma, said said she would intervene on their behalf after learning only 32 had received their payments.
Ostanina told the group that after first raising the issue in the Duma, the Ministry of Labor was ordered to help the Ministry of Emergencies process the applications and distribute the money “but still nothing. has not changed”.
She said the list of Mechta refugees still awaiting payment had been sent to the relevant authorities “but everything got stuck there again”.
“How long can we talk about this?” she said exasperated.
For those who don’t have politicians on their side, the process of communicating with officials in the bureaucracy can be daunting.
Alyona arrived in St. Petersburg in early May from the Luhansk region in the Donbass and was told she would be paid 10,000 rubles within 10 days. Two months later, she still hasn’t received it.
She said she called the local fund distribution center to find out when she would be paid and was told to call back in 15 minutes.
“I’ve been calling for days but no one picks up the phone,” she said.
Ukrainian refugees in other regions, including Moscow as well as Krasnodar and Rostov in southern Russia, told RFE/RL that they too had been waiting for months for their payments.
Olena, who arrived in the Moscow region from Mariupol with her daughter and mother, said she has not yet received her payment despite filing her application in April.
She said she had to run around Moscow to collect documents and visit doctors, sometimes standing in line all day.
“If you [Russia] are the receiving party [for refugees], then accept us in the normal way,” she told RFE/RL. “Behave humanely towards people who have been sitting for a long time in the cold, hungry and under shelling and who have been forced to cook food over an open fire.”
Svetlana Gannushkina, head of Civil Assistance, a Moscow-based rights group that helps migrants and refugees, told RFE/RL that “long bureaucratic procedures” are at the heart of the problem facing refugees. Ukrainians.
They must submit documents, such as their passport, and go through a background check before they can potentially receive payment and seek employment, she said.
An elderly woman from Mechta told Ostanina that she was denied payment because she did not pass the background check for reasons that were not explained to her.
However, they may have to travel to another region to manage their paperwork or face other obstacles that waste their time and energy, Gannushkina said.
“People spend so much time [dealing with the bureaucracy], and it’s unclear how they should survive in the meantime. In short, they are losing hope,” she said.
Maria, who fled Donbass for Krasnodar, was informed by the local government office that her case and similar ones were transferred to the neighboring Rostov region.
“I don’t even know which government office to look for in Rostov,” she said.
Maria said that without the money she could not pass the medical examination needed to find a job.
Gannushkina said around 3,300 refugees turned to civil assistance for help and “very few” received the 10,000 ruble payment.
“Of course, this is crucial money for these people and it is important that they receive it immediately,” she said.
Gannushkina said another obstacle for refugees is restrictions on converting Ukrainian hryvnya into Russian rubles and on finding employment.
Refugees cannot convert hryvnya to rubles until they have completed their background check and payment has been approved.
Even so, refugees can officially only convert up to 8,000 hryvnya ($275).
Both restrictions impact refugees’ ability to buy essential goods upon arrival in Russia, although they may also turn to the black market to exchange currency.
“Where is the logic here?” said Gannushkina, expressing her frustration.