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A woman hugs relatives as she arrives in a bus with people who fled from Mariupol and Tokmak Berdyansk to a reception center for displaced people in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine, on May 3.Francisco Seco/The Associated Press

Ukraine’s ban on adult men leaving the country so they will be available for military service is facing growing criticism and legal challenges as the war drags on and the country’s economy falters.

Several petitions have been launched calling on the government to overturn the measure, and a group of lawyers has filed lawsuits arguing that it violates the constitution. One lawyer has also asked the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to push Kyiv to drop the rule.

“No other country does this,” said Alexander Gumirov, who sent a letter to Ms. Bachelet asking her to intervene. “Not even Russia who kills us. Now we ended up in the situation that we are fighting in the country for liberty and we are less liberal than the country which is attacking us.”

The UN commission has yet to respond to the letter but has urged Ukraine to show compassion to those seeking to flee.

President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the ban – which applies to men between the ages of 18 and 60 – when he introduced martial law on Feb. 24. At the time he said the move was necessary “in order to ensure the defence of the state, maintaining combat and mobilization readiness.”

It has remained in force, although there are several exemptions, including for men who have a medical condition, international students, single fathers and those caring for three or more children.

Most observers acknowledge that Ukraine has a right to mobilize as many people as possible to fend off the Russians, including through conscription. But as the war moves into its seventh month and jobs become scarce, forcing almost all men to remain in the country has become harder to justify.

Critics say the army doesn’t want men who are unfit or unwilling to fight. Therefore, they add, it makes little sense to prohibit millions of unemployed men from going abroad to find work that would support their families and contribute financially to the country.

There are also fears that by compelling men to stay, Kyiv is simply creating targets for Russian soldiers in occupied territories.

Research by political scientist Adam Jones has found that conquering forces typically view civilian men between the ages of 15 and 55 as a danger. Of the 458 people killed during Russia’s occupation of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha last March, 366 were men. There have also been reports that Russian soldiers have forced Ukrainian men to fight on the front lines.

The ban “contradicts the constitution and all the international laws which Ukraine has adopted and ratified,” said Dmytro Busanov, a lawyer in Kyiv who is part of the group pursuing a legal challenge.

He pointed to Article 33 of the constitution, which gives people “the right to freely leave the territory of Ukraine, with the exception of restrictions established by law.”

Mr. Busanov said parliament has not enshrined the requirement into law and instead introduced it as a cabinet decree. “The problem is that if there is a limitation of the constitution it should be limited by law and there is no law which says that men under such condition are prohibited from leaving the country.”

Although he normally practises real estate law, Mr. Busanov became so incensed by the ban that he took two cases on a pro bono basis to fight it. His clients are a couple of men in their 40s who moved to central Ukraine from Donetsk and Mariupol because of the fighting there. Now they can’t find work and both have wives and two children to support.

“We need a judge in Ukraine who will make a just decision,” Mr. Busanov said. In the meantime, he’s considering filing an application with the European Court of Human Rights.

He and others say the country’s worsening economy has made many men increasingly desperate to leave. A growing number are paying bribes or turning to dozens of online services that promise to get men across the border for about US$1,500.

Oksana Druchynina’s husband, Denys, took an even riskier route.

They used to live in Molochansk, near Zaporizhzhia, and both worked at the Mennonite Centre, which is supported by a Canadian charity. When Russian troops occupied the city in late February, the family headed to Kyiv. Ms. Druchynina and their three children went on to Abbotsford, B.C., while Mr. Druchynina, 27, moved to western Ukraine.

He tried to get out by applying for an exemption. When that failed, he decided to try his luck with the Russians.

He travelled to southern Ukraine, talked his way past Russian checkpoints and got into Crimea. From there he spent four days on a bus through Russia to the border with Latvia, then waited almost two days to cross. He eventually made it to Poland, where he is waiting for a Canadian visa. He told his wife that three-quarters of the people on the bus were men from Ukraine.

“I understand that they don’t want all the men to leave the country,” Ms. Druchynina said. “But on the other hand, they don’t need men to fight who don’t want to fight.”

Mr. Zelensky has defended the ban and dismissed the criticism. In response to a petition that gathered 27,000 signatures, he said: “Can we show this petition to parents who lost their sons to defend the country?”

He has also pointed to a section of the constitution that says freedom of movement can be restricted under martial law.

The government has expanded some exemptions. Since May, men can go abroad for as many as 30 days if they serve as volunteer drivers delivering humanitarian aid. On Sept. 1, entrepreneurs will be able to exit for a week, but they must put down a deposit of about $7,000. And last Saturday, Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said merchant sailors can cross the border if they receive approval from their local military administrative body.

Some parliamentarians want the government to go further. Georgiy Mazurashu, who belongs to Mr. Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, has proposed several bills to ease the restrictions but has found little support among his colleagues because the issue is too sensitive.

“The main thing is that if we finally moved from emotional decisions … it would be for the benefit of ordinary citizens, the economy, and therefore the defence capability and the country as a whole,” he said.

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