Return to fight or lose your passport: What can Ukrainians abroad and Europe expect from the new Ukrainian Mobilization Act?

Ukraine’s general need to strengthen its army in the fight against Russia presents European governments with new dilemmas. How does one deal with a potentially growing population of Ukrainians who may be unable to renew their documents, Oleksandra Deineko and Vilde Hernes write.

Is Europe about to have a massive number of new undocumented refugees on their hands?

In order to reinforce the Ukrainian army to assure the continuing defence of Ukraine against the ongoing Russian aggression, on 18 May 2024, a new Ukrainian Mobilization Act entered into force, altering regulations for the Ukrainian mobilisation processes, military service and military registration.

The new Mobilization Act has caused heated political debate in Ukraine, but it is not merely a domestic concern.  Its ripple effects will confront both the millions of Ukrainians living abroad and European governments with though dilemmas. So, what does this new Mobilization Act imply for the millions of Ukrainians who have fled abroad – and for the European governments hosting them?

The main implications of the new Mobilization Act for Ukrainians – affecting those living in Ukraine and abroad alike – are related to amendments concerning who is included and excempted from registratrion, mobilization and military training – and the consequences for non-compliance.

First, the new legislation lowers the age limit of who may be mobilized from 27 to 25 years. It also introduces mandatory basic military service for persons aged 18-25.

A more technical – but potentially highly influential – change is that the category ‘limited suitability for military service’ is removed, which previously meant that you would be exempted from being sent to the frontlines. This change implies that most persons who had previously been deemed to have ‘limited suitability’ now must undergo a re-examination within nine months.

Medical examination, a catch-22

Second, one of the main new obligations in the new Mobilization Act is that Ukrainian men (and women with medical or pharmaceutical education) between 18-60 years need to update their data in the military register within 60 days. Updating data in the military register does not automatically imply being summoned to military service, but it may be an important precondition for later mobilization.

At first glance, this requirement to update data may seem like a purely technical requirement, but it carries many implications for Ukrainians abroad.

Firstly, although the legislation allows updating this data electronically from abroad, the new regulations also require a medical re-examination to fulfil the requirements. As a medical examination cannot be conducted electronically, Ukrainians living abroad could subsequently be required to undergo a new medical examination in person, potentially having to return to Ukraine to fulfil the obligation.

Secondly, although the new Mobilization act does not explicitly address this question, the updated information may allow for sending summons electronically in the future.

This raises the question: What are the consequences for Ukrainian men abroad – and the European countries hosting them – if they do not update their data in the military register?

No coercion, yet questions remain

For all Ukrainians, failure to comply with the new requirements can result in a fine, with severely increased penalty rates. If the fine is not paid, an arrest may be placed on property and assets. They may also be banned from driving vehicles. An addition consequence for Ukrainians residing abroad is that they will loose access to consular services from Ukrainian institutions in foreign countries if they don’t update their data in the military register. One important implication of this restriction is that they will not be able to get passports issued or renewed.

This latter point may cause challenges with identity checks and mobility, for example if they need to cross European borders or wish to cross the Ukrainian border to visit their home country. It will lead to both legal and social isolation from their native country.

Thus, Ukrainian men staying abroad face a significant dilemma: comply with the new requirements set out in the new mobilization act or ignore them? Updating their information in the military register introduces uncertainties about potential mobilization, while avoiding the new requirements could result in losing their passport and severing connections with Ukrainian authorities and society.

Even though the current law does not include the possibility for digital summons, there are indications that the Ukrainian state will significantly intensify recruitment for the Ukrainian army in the near future. However, representatives of the Ukrainian government have stated that Ukraine will not forcibly return conscripted men from abroad. Ukrainian lawyers also conclude that there are currently no coercive mechanisms for returning conscripts to Ukraine.

But the general need for Ukraine to strengthen the mobilization of its army in the fight against Russia present European governments with new dilemmas.

How to deal with a potential growing population of Ukrainians who may not be able to renew their formal documents (e.g. passports)?

And most importantly, how to weigh up the dilemma of helping Ukraine defend itself by aiding in the (voluntary or forced) return of citizens in the target group for mandatory mobilisation, against ensuring human rights by providing protection for those fleeing from war?

European governments’ responses to vary greatly?

Although European countries have responded to the reception of Ukrainian refugees in a more unified manner when compared to previous influxes of asylum seekers, there are still striking differences in their overall reception and Ukrainians’ rights in the host countries.

European governments have also sent diverging signals on how they will react to the implications of the new Mobilisation Act. For example, Polish officials have indicated that they may decide to stop issuing residence permits for Ukrainian conscripted men, if requested by the Ukrainian government. The German government, however, has already assured Ukrainians of the possibility of obtaining a German travel document that can replace their passport.

Whether European governments will tackle these questions nationally or at the EU level is currently unknown, but the initial signals from European governments indicate that their responses may differ greatly.

Irrespectively, European governments will most likely have to deal with a growing population of Ukrainian refugees without valid identity documents. The fear of being sent back to Ukraine to serve at the frontlines may also increase the risk of a higher number of non-registered Ukrainians in European countries, potentially creating a large, new group of undocumented migrants in European communities. Is Europe prepared for that?

The original text was published by Euronews, 24 June 2024:

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