Anger among Ukrainians in Poland as Kyiv halts passport renewals

The move is seen as part of Ukraine's efforts to reinforce its army as soldiers struggle to hold positions against Russia


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Ukrainians gather in front of a closed Ukraine's passport service point at the shopping center in Warsaw, Poland, on April 24, 2024.  — AFP
Ukrainians gather in front of a closed Ukraine's passport service point at the shopping center in Warsaw, Poland, on April 24, 2024. — AFP

Published: Wed 24 Apr 2024, 10:09 PM

Hundreds of Ukrainians crammed up against a closed passport office in Warsaw on Wednesday, furious over Kyiv's suspension of consular services for fighting-aged men in a bid to force them to return home and bolster troop numbers.

Ukrainian authorities said on Tuesday that they were "temporarily" blocking men aged 18 to 60 from accessing consular services, after Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said they were letting compatriots fight in their place on the front lines.

"Staying abroad does not relieve a citizen of his or her duties to the homeland," Kuleba posted on social media.

The move is seen as part of Kyiv's efforts to reinforce its army as soldiers struggle to hold positions against Russia.

But in Poland, which hosts hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians -- both refugees from the conflict and those who were already living in the country when Russia invaded -- there was anger among those who felt they were being unfairly targeted.

"This is a fight against people who are fleeing the army," said Maksym, a 38-year-old truck driver, one of dozens of people who had come hoping to collect a new passport they had applied for -- so far unsuccessfully.

"We are not asked on what grounds we went abroad... Why am I a draft dodger if I went abroad legally?" he told AFP.

Some said they had spent the whole night queueing up.

The agency issuing passports to Ukrainian residents in Warsaw blamed a "technical error" for the problems, not the new directive from Kyiv.

A heated argument broke out at the passport office when women accused a group of men of blocking the entrance and stopping other people who wanted to submit applications.

Pavlo Lyashenko, a 35-year-old entrepreneur standing nearby as the scene unfolded, told AFP that "The state has put me in a situation in which I have no way out."

He said he had received a text message saying his passport was ready, but believed it was now being withheld from him.

"The doors are blocked. They are afraid that if I come inside, I will not leave until I receive my passport. I know it's there," Lyashenko said.

Ukraine's ambassador to Poland, Vasyl Zvarych, told AFP that "all applications submitted to the consular offices of Ukraine before April 23... will be processed in full and passport documents will be issued to such people".

He said the consulate had received "a lot of calls" on Tuesday.

As the crowds swelled on Wednesday morning, the agency called in the Polish police, whose officers spoke with those queueing up but did not otherwise intervene.

Diana Petrenko, deputy director of the Warsaw passport office, said that technical issues were to blame.

"Unfortunately, the documents are not issued due to technical reasons," she told AFP, refusing to elaborate on the nature of the alleged glitch.

Ukraine's foreign ministry said Tuesday that the suspension applied only to new applications and that any requests submitted before then would be honoured.

Lyashenko, the entrepreneur, said that he had left Ukraine long before the start of the war, and that he now worried he would end up in a legal grey zone, abroad but without a valid passport.

"I think that our state is simply driving people to the point that we will all need to do this," he said.

Although there are some exceptions, most Ukrainian men have been barred from leaving the country since Russia invaded in February 2022 -- meaning that many who will now be unable to submit new passport applications had already been living away for years.

According to Ukrainian media, hundreds of thousands of working-age men have sought refuge in EU countries since the start of the war.

The consular service suspensions, which come as Kyiv scrambles to recruit troops, is widely seen as an attempt to force fighting-age men back to Ukraine.

President Volodymyr Zelensky's government also recently passed a new mobilisation law designed to help lift army numbers, and lowered the age limit for mobilisation to 25 from 27.

The mobilisation law, due to come into force mid-May, also toughens penalties against draft dodgers and forces men to keep their military registration up to date.

The foreign ministry said the suspension of consular services was a temporary measure needed to "resolve technical issues" linked with the implementation of the new law.

Bogdan, a Ukrainian truck driver who declined to give his full name, said he was stuck waiting for a second day straight at the Warsaw passport office.

"I drove 700 kilometres (435 miles) to get my passport because I received a text message that I could pick it up," the 27-year-old said.

"No one gives the passport. What are our next steps?" he said. "What do we have to do to simply be given our documents that we paid for?"

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