13 Feb 2024

10-year-old Ukrainian boy among NZ's newest refugees

1:03 pm on 13 February 2024
Local residents look at a graffiti made by Banksy on the wall of a destroyed building in Borodyanka, near Kyiv on November 12, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Banksy, the elusive British street artist, has painted a mural on a bombed-out building outside Ukraine's capital, in what Ukrainians have hailed as a symbol of their country's invincibility. On November 11's night the world-famous graffiti artist posted on Instagram three images of the artwork -- a gymnast performing a handstand amid the ruins of a demolished building in the town of Borodyanka northwest of the Ukrainian capital Kyiv. (Photo by Genya SAVILOV / AFP) / RESTRICTED TO EDITORIAL USE - MANDATORY MENTION OF THE ARTIST UPON PUBLICATION - TO ILLUSTRATE THE EVENT AS SPECIFIED IN THE CAPTION

A destroyed building in Borodyanka, near Kyiv on November 12, 2022, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Photo: AFP

"He dreamed about running away from Russian soldiers, being buried under buildings that had been bombed and were crumbling above, and having to eat the family cat because there was no food," a boy's mother told a refugee appeal tribunal.

The nightmares lasted for a year after they arrived in New Zealand.

The pair and his grandparents are the first Ukrainians to be granted refugee status here since the start of the Russian invasion. More than 30 asylum claims have been made, but only a handful have been approved.

The Refugee Status Branch declined to give an exact number but said it was fewer than five.

When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the government offered a 12-month visa for close relatives of Ukrainians already living in New Zealand. That was extended for another year and in August a new residence pathway was launched for some holders of Special Ukraine Visas.

The boy and his mother had been living in a village on the outskirts of Kyiv and fled to Slovakia when the war broke out. Her brother already lived in New Zealand and they applied to join him with her parents.

Her parents' refugee claims, based on their anti-Russian views, were accepted within days of them arriving in New Zealand in June 2022. But the woman and her son had to appeal the rejection of their claim, while her husband remained fighting in Ukraine. They were recognised as refugees just before Christmas.

She told the immigration and protection tribunal the risks of drone and missile attacks was compounded by their Crimean Tatar ethnicity, which put them in dangers when nationalist sentiments were running high. There was increased hostility towards Russian speakers and she was particularly concerned for the effect on her son.

"To live in Kyiv, the son would have to constantly seek safety in a basement at the sound of sirens," the tribunal wrote about her evidence.

"Although being separated from the husband was difficult, the son's health and safety was the couple's priority. In New Zealand, the son was now settled, learning English, and had made friends."

Her husband is Armenian and and had been struggling since 2019 to renew his Ukrainian passport. He told the tribunal via video link that he often sees missiles exploding.

"In mid-2023, the husband and his parents were evicted from their home in the village after their landlord discovered they were Armenian. The landlord suspected that Armenians were supportive of the Russian invasion and told them they would need to find a new place within two weeks."

Another Ukrainian woman, who had been studying here when war broke out, has also been granted refugee status on appeal.

The 61-year-old former teacher, a Seventh-day Adventist, told the tribunal she had only rudimentary Ukrainian language skills and was concerned that the drawn-out war had made Ukrainians hostile towards Russian speakers.

Immigration New Zealand's Refugee Status Unit said as asylum claims were sensitive and to protect privacy, it would not disclose exact numbers of approvals and declines.

"Refugee or protection status can be claimed on arrival in New Zealand at an airport, port, or later after arriving in New Zealand," said its acting head of operations, Erin Harper. "Most people who claim asylum in New Zealand arrive in the country on valid visas or are issued visas on arrival and live in the community. A very small number of people claim asylum on arrival at New Zealand's borders.

"Since 15 March 2022 when the 2022 Special Ukraine Visa opened, we have received 31 Refugee and Protection Claims (Asylum Seekers), of which less than five have been approved, and less than five have been declined. The remainder are either undecided or have been withdrawn by the individual."

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