‘I don’t know what to do’ Taken to the Russian Far East, refugees from Mariupol were promised housing and jobs. They have yet to receive either.
For three weeks, more than 300 refugees from Mariupol have been living in the town of Vrangel in Russia’s Far Eastern Primorsky Krai. During Russia’s weeks-long siege of Mariupol, which is now under occupation, many residents were unable to safely escape to territory controlled by Kyiv. Instead, some civilians seeking evacuation were forcibly deported to the Russian city of Taganrog. Upon arriving at the local train station, these refugees were talked into going to the country’s Far East, where they were promised free housing, reduced mortgage rates, relocation support, and jobs. As a result, some 300 refugees from Ukraine ended up in a small town on the shores of the Nakhodka Bay. In interviews with Meduza, refugees living in Vrangel recounted what has happened to them since arriving in Russia.
Please note. All of the names in this story have been changed for safety reasons.
Before February 24, Anastasia worked as a secretary at a private clinic in Mariupol. “In the morning, about 30 minutes after I got to work, there was a huge explosion followed by another. We were told to go home,” she says, remembering the day Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Anastasia stayed at home with her husband, Oleh, and their five-year-old daughter until March 5, while the shelling kept getting closer and closer, she recalls. The power, water and gas were all cut, as was mobile service. “On March 5, we saw mortars landing outside our window. My daughter and I ran to the basement of the children’s hospital, because it was the closest shelter to our house,” recalls Anastasia. They spent nearly a month in the basement, together will almost 200 others, including women in labor — and then their newborns, as well. When a shell hit the building where Anastasia’s family lived, her husband joined them in the basement too.
Nobody knew how to get out of the city. Due to the lack of electricity and mobile service, information about humanitarian corridors did not reach the people hiding out in the basement. Anastasia said that there was no way to get to Zaporizhzhia and that the last trains to Kyiv (and from there to Poland) had already stopped running by the end of February. On March 23, those who had cars headed towards the village of Bezimenne, which was under the control of Russian troops. Everyone else stayed and waited.
“We had no water or food, and hadn’t seen even a slice of bread for two weeks. On March 27, a group of DNR soldiers found us. They asked if we needed anything and, five or six hours later, they brought us a bunch of food, bread and water, as well as diesel fuel for the generator — that’s what saved us. We immediately started asking them about how we can get out,” Anastasia recalls.
Since the beginning of the all-out war, nearly 900,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed into Russia, according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Shelling has often prevented civilians from reaching territory controlled by Ukraine. The refugees in Vrangel didn’t tell Meduza how exactly they crossed the border into Russia. But there are many firsthand accounts of the “filtration” process that displaced Ukrainians have been subjected to at the hands of the Russian authorities, which includes interrogations and and inspections, including of their phones. For some, the process has included spending several weeks in “ filtration camps.”
On April 2, Anastasia says, DNR troops took her family to Novoazovsk, then to Donetsk, and then to Matveyev Kurgan in Russia’s Rostov region. Then they were sent to Taganrog. There, “some guys” met the family right at the train station, and pitched them a program that provides support for relocation to Vladivostok — a major city on Russia’s Pacific coast. (The “guys” at the train station gave Anastasia leaflets from the Far East Development Corporation, a state-owned company involved in convincing refugees to resettle in the Russian Far East.)
‘Lured by the program’
Olga worked as a nurse in Mariupol. Her husband was an electrician and her daughter was an engineer. They had a car and “lived well,” she says. During the siege of Mariupol, her family spent a month and a half — from February 24 to April 8 — sheltering in a basement. Their house was destroyed by shelling a month into the war.
“There was no way for us to get to a more secure part of Ukraine, only to Russia,” Olga recalls. “But even in Russia, we had few choices about where to go — to Kirov or to the Far East under the resettlement program. We were lured here by the program. We thought we would be offered a 2 percent mortgage, but it turns out that this is only for families where both spouses are younger than 35. We learned about this only after we were already on the train.”
According to several refugees Meduza interviewed, once they arrived in Taganrog, they were offered the “chance” to participate in the Far East resettlement program. At the train station, they were given leaflets that said upon moving to the Far East, they would receive 170,000 rubles ($2,700) in relocation assistance for each family member, as well as housing certificates worth up to 600,000 rubles ($9,650) per refugee. Similar figures were announced by the Primorsky Krai government at a meeting with refugees: 570,000 ($9,175) for housing certificates and 164,000 ($2,600) in one-time relocation assistance.
But, as Olga recalls, the refugees were not told that housing prices in Primorsky Krai are not cheap — only Moscow, Saint Petersburg and Sochi are more expensive.
Under the resettlement program, a family of three should receive three certificates for a total of 1.7 million rubles ($27,000) and each person should be allocated at least six square meters (64 square feet) of housing. According to Primorskstat (the regional statistics bureau), the average price per square meter in the first quarter of 2022 was 142,000 rubles ($2,285) on the new housing market and 126,500 rubles ($2,000) on the secondary market. Thus, an 18-square meter (193-square foot) apartment would cost at least 570,000 rubles ($9,175).
Initially, 14 temporary accommodation facilities were prepared to house a total of 1,350 refugees from Ukraine; one-third of them were set up in Vladivostok. However, according to a Meduza source in the regional Emergency Situations Ministry, as of May 12, no one was living in the temporary accommodation facilities in Vladivostok.
According to Anastasia, upon arriving at the train station, her family was told — without any further explanation — that they would be staying in the small town of Vrangel near the port city of Nakhodka, rather than in Vladivostok.
‘No one is offering good jobs’
On April 21, 308 refugees from Mariupol arrived in Nakhodka via Taganrog.
Before they got there, the regional government reported that there were more than 1,700 vacancies for Mariupol refugees at more than 200 organizations (more than 300 vacancies were said to be unique and personalized). Data released by the Ministry for the Development of the Russian Far East and Arctic on the number of jobs for refugees in Primorsky Krai were even more impressive. A week before the refugees arrived, the ministry’s press office announced that there were as many as 62,000 vacancies listed in the Primorsky Employment Service’s database and specialists were already offering jobs to refugees. “People are heading to the Far East with a clear understanding that a new job is waiting for them,” proclaimed the ministry’s head, Alexey Chekunkov.
However, a source familiar with the situation told Meduza that three weeks after arriving, most refugees from Mariupol have been unable to find work. The problem, as the refugees see it, is that salaries for most positions aren’t high even to cover their rent.
“While we were on the train, they collected our information. They said it would be passed on to an employment center and that, when we arrived, we would already have jobs lined up. We all asked for jobs that had housing included and were told that this is how it would be. But that isn’t how it turned out. My husband was offered a low-paying position, and I wasn’t offered anything at all,” says Olga, the nurse.
Olga says that healthcare workers from Ukraine are required to undergo recertification in order to work in Russia. Thus, for now, she is unable to work in her field. “In Nakhodka,” says Olga, “no one is offering good jobs or providing help with housing.”
Oleksiy, who arrived from Mariupol, was offered a position at a fish processing facility owned by Dobroflot, the largest fishing holding company in the Far East. But he was taken aback by the offered salary of 35,000 rubles ($560) per month. This is much lower than the average regional salary of 54,000 rubles ($870), according to February data from Primorskstat.
“I’m not prepared to work for so little — in Ukraine, I never earned less than $1,000 per month,” he said. Oleksiy says he was also offered a job beheading chickens at an agricultural firm — also for 35,000 rubles per month. Although the Mariupol resident continues to look for work in Primorye, he is thinking about going to Yakutia. He thinks he will be able to find a better-paying job there.
Anastasia hasn’t been able to find a job yet, either. “To rent a home, you still need to pay a commission to the real estate agent and make a deposit — not to mention buying food and finding a job. I don’t know whom I can contact to get help and I don’t know what to do,” says Anastasia.
Her husband Oleh’s documents were burned when their building was shelled in Mariupol. He is trying to get temporary documents. “He is a machine operator and we haven’t been able to find anything in his line of work nearby. But we will consider anything at this point. The main thing is to get new documents as soon as possible, otherwise he won’t even be able to open a bank account. So we might be waiting a while for that 10,000 ruble payment,” says Anastasia.
The government in Primorsky Krai is supposed to provide refugees with a one-time payment of 10,000 rubles ($160) as financial aid. However, at the moment, the refugees have only been given bank cards. The funds have yet to be transferred.
For the time being, Anastasia and her husband are living in temporary housing in a hotel. However, they don’t know how long they will be able to stay there. Anastasia assumed they could spend a year there — they’ve been given temporary asylum for precisely that period. According to Oleh, when they moved into the hotel, they were told that they could stay there for three months. However, now they are being told that they will need to be out by May 21.
Some of the refugees have already started to leave Nakhodka. Next weekend, Yulia from Donetsk and her husband are moving to Vladivostok, where she will work as a lab technician at Pacific State Medical University. She and her husband were promised that they could stay at one of the university’s dormitories, but it turned out that there wasn’t any space was available. A local resident has helped them to pay rent for an apartment, but only for the first two months.
The Migration Department of the regional Interior Ministry branch has reported receiving more than 300 applications for temporary asylum in Russia. Temporary asylum holders have the right to reside and work in Russia for a period of one year. The Migration Department also reported that 150 citizens of Ukraine intend to participate in the voluntary resettlement program for Russian compatriots.
The city that the refugees left behind, Mariupol, is now almost completely in ruins. As a result of shelling, nearly 90 percent of residential buildings have been damaged. At the end of March, Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko reported that the damage to residential buildings is so extensive that only around half could be restored.
‘The children look lost and in shock’
The Ukrainian refugees who fled the war haven’t even been provided with clothing by the Primorsky Krai authorities who invited them to the Far East.
Local volunteers have stepped in to help refugees at their own expense, buying clothes, shoes, underwear, and other essentials like detergent, soap, deodorant, and wash basins. Ukrainians who have managed to find jobs have asked volunteers for help with office attire and accessories.
But almost all of them need basic everyday clothes. “The other day, we packed a suitcase full of things that people had asked for. One women burst into tears when she saw everything,” recalls one volunteer.
The volunteers are now trying to do some fundraising. One local resident donated 100,000 rubles ($1,600) which has already been spent. To meet everyone’s needs, they will need to raise several hundred thousand more.
“Some of the refugees are quite elderly,” says one of the volunteers. “One of them has asked for eyeglasses, another for a hearing aid. Maybe the regional government will help them in some way, but it is all moving too slow. During one of our meetings with the local authorities, we were told not to bring any more medicine. They said that they would provide for everyone themselves. But the next time, I was approached by a woman who asked for couch syrup and vitamins for her baby. Another person asked for eye drops. It is not clear to us whether the refugees want familiar brands or whether the local authorities are failing to provide them with anything.”
Some refugees arrived in Primorsky Krai with their children, who also need clothes.
“The children look lost and in shock,” one of the volunteers tells Meduza. “One girl was sitting in the corner of the hallway in the hotel. We found sneakers in her size and she tried them on. They fit her just fine. But she said, ‘Ugh, I’ll just keep wearing my old ones’.”
Translation by Bram Caplan