Young man in jeans holding in hand foreign passport of Ukraine with air ticket attached to it © Lina Mo/Shutterstock

© Lina Mo/Shutterstock

It is a violation of human rights, it is unnecessary, it forces unbearable decisions on families, and creates new vulnerabilities. As it renews its martial and mobilization laws in August, Ukraine should reconsider its male travel ban

21/07/2023 -  Giorgio Comai

In order to respond to Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine launched in February 2022, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky immediately declared martial law and a general mobilization. On the evening of 24 February 2022, it was announced that men between the age of 18 and 60 would not be allowed to leave the country. More than 500 days later, as the war continues unabated, the travel ban for males remains in force with only relatively minor exceptions for parents of three or more children, invalids, and few other categories of citizens . As a consequence, millions of Ukrainian men are not allowed to leave the country, even if a vast majority of them are not conscripted in the army, are not involved in any military training, and remain, to all effects and purposes, civilians with no immediate war-related obligation.

From the very beginning, the policy has imposed unbearable choices on families who had to choose between remaining together in a war zone or separating in ways that increased the vulnerabilities of all those involved: men, women and children. It predictably fostered corruption, as it created a black market for men bribing their way through the border or relying on smugglers . As it quickly emerged, it made also little practical or strategic sense, as the Ukrainian army has been consistently filling up its ranks without retorting to forced recruitment, which would anyway be problematic.

The policy has received mostly muted criticism, largely as a consequence of strong support for Ukraine’s wartime leadership and widespread acknowledgement of the fact that Ukraine is fighting a defensive and existential war. Internationally, tacit support for the male travel ban may also be related to the fact that it implicitly reiterates how this war will be fought by Ukrainian citizens, without direct involvement of foreign armies. Arguably even more important is the fact that the policy sits well with a gender essentialist perspective that depicts men as fighters and defenders of the motherland, and women as victims in need of protection.

This stereotyped view is obviously problematic for a number of reasons, including the fact that civilian men are exceptionally vulnerable in war zones as they are more likely to be targeted in summary executions or treated as combatants, but also because women obviously can, and indeed do, take up military and combat roles. About 50 000 women are currently serving in the Ukrainian army , including 5 000 in combat roles in the front lines. As argued by Olya Oliker on Foreign Affairs , “to build a truly modern army, Ukraine needs not just the newest weaponry but also state-of-the art approaches to recruiting and retaining the best personnel”; further facilitating and promoting involvement of female volunteers may well be more effective than recurring to forced mobilization of men.

A recently released study by the Human Security Lab at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, “Protecting Civilian Men’s Right to Flee the Ukraine War ” (also discussed with its lead author in a recent Crisis Group podcast ), includes survey results showing that even if there is still widespread support for the policy, most Ukrainians would actually prefer to see changes to the current male travel ban. In recommending that the ban be lifted, the report highlights how the policy has “unclear strategic benefits but several strategic downsides”, including a negative impact on war morale . It also recommends that Ukraine’s allies in the West “should encourage Zelensky to relax the travel ban on civilian men, citing both human rights standards and strategic imperatives”, and that global civil society organisations “should openly advocate for and ensure the gender-neutral protection of all civilians”.

Most importantly, as argued in this report and elsewhere , the current ban is an obvious violation of human rights, and it should be denounced as such. From the first weeks of the war, experts have criticised the male travel ban policy on both moral and practical grounds, while clearly acknowledging and respecting the fact that as the victim of a war of aggression with a duty to protect its population from invading forces the government in Kyiv has the right to take exceptional measures that would not be warranted in peace time. The policy, however, is both harmful and unnecessary, as it leads to huge numbers of prolonged involuntary family separations and deprives millions of men of their freedom of movement with no apparent benefit to Ukraine’s war effort. More flexible solutions should be preferred, allowing both civilian men and military men on leave to cross the border, possibly encouraging (but not mandating) a pledge to return if called. As it renews its martial and mobilization laws in August, Ukraine should reconsider its male travel ban.

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