Andrei has lived outside of Ukraine for over a decade, but when his father died, he returned with his wife to the country of his birth to attend the burial in mid-February. After a short visit, they planned to fly back to his home in Miami.
One week after he arrived, Russia invaded, and Ukraine declared martial law, banning Ukrainian men between 18 and 60 from leaving the country. Andrei is now stuck alone in Ukraine with only a single suitcase of mostly winter clothes.
Andrei's sister and mother fled to Latvia, and his wife, whose visa for Ukraine was about to expire, returned to the United States. Andrei is desperate to get back there, too — to his wife, his house, his job, and his normal life.
A bureaucratic blind spot
Andrei's predicament may sound like bad luck, but there are many more like him: Vitalij, a medic in a Czech hospital, took a vacation to visit his parents in Ukraine three days before the war began; Vito, a museum employee in the United Arab Emirates, flew to Ukraine on February 17 and now has no income to support his family; Mykola, a scientist at a research institute in Germany, needed to file paperwork at the German Embassy for his wife's visa but the embassy closed shortly before the border closed to Ukrainian men; Aleksy, who returned to Ukraine from Poland to fight on the frontlines and now, after completing a tour of duty, cannot return to his family and job in Gdansk. The men requested DW use only their first names to prevent possible repercussions.
DW talked to eight men in this predicament. Some of them continue to work remotely, others have taken unpaid leave in the hopes of returning to their jobs. Most of them have been separated from their families, and all of them say the exit ban has caused them emotional and financial distress.
Looking for a way out
Andrei started a Telegram channel for emigrant men unexpectedly trapped in Ukraine, and now over 130 members discuss their situation. But he believes there are many more.
"I can't understand why the government made these decisions," says Andrei. "They probably think, 'Maybe we have these guys, but it's only a few thousand, so, too bad.'"
Officially, the ban on leaving the country does not apply to non-resident Ukrainian men, but foreign residency documents do not suffice as proof of this status. Border guards require a passport stamp from Ukrainian authorities that was not mandatory before the war in order to leave the country and is now all but impossible to get as fighting continues around the country.
Mykola says that it's been difficult to get help, or even empathy, because of emigrants' complicated legal status.
"On paper, it looks fine, like people can go home," Mykola says. "But in reality, we can't."
Following pressure from affected men on Facebook, the State Border Guard Service confirmed that an appropriate Ukrainian passport stamp approving a move out of the country is the only acceptable proof of permanent residence abroad. "If a person actually lived abroad," authorities wrote, "but did not register his departure according to the official procedure… unfortunately, he cannot leave Ukraine."
'Like a quest you can never complete'
To get the stamp, a Ukrainian man must first get permission from the state migration office, deregister from his local military conscription office and deregister from his local address. The procedure took up to three months even before the Russian invasion. With a war on, many administrative offices in the east and southeast have been destroyed or shut down by Russia. Even in Ukrainian-controlled territory, many offices have closed or are unable to access files making it impossible to obtain the stamp. "It's like a quest you can never complete," says Mykola.
The administrative office of Andrei's hometown in the Kyiv Oblast confirmed to DW that the "certificate of registration of residence" he requires to begin his application is unavailable because the database is not accessible.
"Since the requirement to affix a stamp in the passport in no way affects the ability of citizens to go abroad and stay at their permanent place of residence, in reality only a few hundred thousand people who actually permanently reside abroad have drawn up these documents," Volodymyr Monastyrskyy of Dentons, a multinational law firm, wrote in the Ukrainian online newspaper Pravda before the war. He described the rule as a "Soviet-era relic." The World Migration Report estimated that nearly 6 million Ukrainians lived abroad in 2020.
Neither the Ukrainian Border Guard Service nor the Interior Ministry responded to repeated DW requests to comment on the situation of emigrants unable to leave Ukraine.
Mykola says he considers himself somewhat lucky: His wife is with him and he can continue his scientific work remotely. But some of the men DW talked to have been severed from these aspects of their lives. Oleksandr Diubanov, a project manager at the German-owned plastic manufacturing plant Froli Baltic in Latvia, says he's suffering from depression. He traveled to Kyiv on February 20 to get a Ukrainian passport for his newborn son, and now he hasn't seen his wife or young child in three months. He's also worried he could lose his job and, therefore, his ability to support his family.
Alicija Voronecka, general manager of the Froli Baltic plant, told DW that the company is doing all it can to help Diubanov. They appealed to the Latvian Embassy in Ukraine, but without success. "This is not work you can do from a computer," she says.
Men stigmatized for wanting to leave Ukraine
The men DW talked to for this report said another challenge for them is the stigma on men who want to leave Ukraine. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appealed to Ukrainians abroad, as well as foreigners, to defend the country against Russia's war of aggression. While martial law was extended by another month this week, it does not require men to fight but prevents them from leaving.
Andrei describes the ridicule men face if they complain about the exit ban. "They say 'Shame on them, they're not patriots.' But we just want to work to feed our families." He adds that he donates part of his income to help volunteers and the military.
Mykola acknowledges that every man in Ukraine, not just those with homes and families abroad, has to face the question of if and how he should serve his country. It's a question he's struggled to answer for himself.
"This topic isn't just legal, it's also emotional," he says. "One has to be critical to oneself. Some things I'm ready to do for my country, some things I'm not."
Pessimism sets in
After his wife left Ukraine, Andrei moved to Kyiv where he spent the last 10 days sleeping at a hotel and says he is pessimistic that he will be able to leave anytime soon. He calls his wife every day to wake her up and again before he goes to bed.
"I'm disappointed with Zelenskyy and I'm really angry at the government," Andrei says.
Like other men in his situation, he says he understands why the Ukrainian government has not made his case a priority. But he also feels it's not too much to ask: to let him go home.
Edited by: Sean Sinico