Italy received the third highest number of Ukrainian asylum seekers last year, but also saw one of the greatest increases in applications. In 2013, just 35 Ukrainians applied for asylum in Italy, but that number jumped to 2,080 in 2014 – a startling 60 times the number from 2013.
Italy accepted the highest number of Ukrainian applicants compared to all other EU countries, with 165 applicants receiving positive outcomes, followed by the Czech Republic (150) and Finland (145).
Julia Zelvenska, a senior legal officer at the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, told The Local that many of those who applied for asylum, including in Italy, were those who were already in the country.
"For example, they were working or studying when the situation in Ukraine changed," she said.
"Asylum applicants choose specific countries usually because they either have friends or family in a particular country, could rely on the support from the community, sometimes speak the language or might have other ties with the country."
Overall, the number of Ukrainian asylum seekers in the 28 EU member states ballooned to 14,040 people in 2014 – more than 13 times higher than the number in 2013 at 1,060 applicants.
That number is even greater when compared to 2008, the beginning of the global economic crisis, when 925 Ukrainians applied for asylum.
“What we have seen from our members working with asylum seekers are those who are fleeing the conflict in the east of Ukraine,” Zelvenska added. “In the past, it has been for political persecution, like in 2013, or for sexual orientation.”
The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said last month that an estimated one million Ukrainians were displaced internally, with many people moving west. Some 600,000 people had sought asylum, many of them in non-EU countries such as Russia, Belarus and Moldova.
But many Ukrainians also applied for asylum in the European Union in 2014, a year that started with a revolution in Kiev and the ousting of the pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
Russia then annexed Crimea in March, in a move widely condemned around the world, before propping up separatists fighting bloody battles with Ukrainian forces in the east of the country.
After last year's spike, the numbers have so far decreased this year, Zelvenska said.
"Recent number of asylum applications by Ukrainian asylum seekers in Europe indeed increased in 2014, but have so far been decreasing in 2015. In general, the numbers still remain quite low, for example, in February 2015 only 125 Ukrainians applied for asylum in Europe."
Of those who applied for asylum in 2014, 650 Ukrainians received positive outcomes on their first application decision in the EU. Eurostat defines positive outcomes as grants of refugee or subsidiary protection status, or an authorisation to stay for humanitarian reasons.
Still, those who received good news were greatly outnumbered by those who were rejected in their first try – 2,335.
Zelvenska explained that it is generally very hard for Ukrainians to gain asylum in EU member states, or to even reach those countries in the first place.
“One of the main reasons people get rejected may be that many countries are not clear on how the situation developed and won’t issue decisions until it is clear how the Ukrainian situation is going to develop,” she said.
“European countries are also being very formalistic in the criteria for asylum,” Zelvenska added. “For example, they may say that there are options for alternative protection already within Ukraine. For people in the east, they may say that they could relocate to the west.”
Zelvenska noted though that reasons for rejection are not made public so it is difficult to know for certain.
“We think it’s not necessary to apply all the criteria in a strict manner,” she said. “They must consider each case, country and the circumstances.”
Last year, EU countries received the highest number of asylum seekers since 1992 with a total of 626,000 applicants. More than 400,000 people applied in 2013.