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Internal Displacement in Ukraine: A test for civil society

It has been a busy day for Yulia Pimenova. While we are walking around the premises of station Kharkiv, passing by a pile of UNICEF boxes and a long queue of people waiting for the organisation’s support, Yulia stops by every now and then to reply to a question of an elderly client, answer an urgent phone call, or give some quick advice to her colleague.

August 5, 2015 - Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska - Articles and Commentary

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Photo: UN Ukraine, flickr.com

The small flat, turned into the main support point for the internally displaced victims of the Donbas conflict in Kharkiv, has managed to accommodate a drop-in registration service, a legal advice centre and a distribution point of direct assistance.

Yulia is one of the hundreds of volunteers who, in the face of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis in the modern day Ukraine, have decided to leave their former activities and focus their efforts on supporting the escapees from the war zone.

According to estimates, ever since the annexation of Crimea by Russia in March 2014, at least 1.3 million of people have left their homes due to the war or politically motivated persecution to look for a safe haven in other parts of Ukraine.

This figure, however, plays down the scale of the phenomenon, as it comprises only those internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have registered with the Ministry of Social Policy. It does not include anyone who did not complete the registration, such as those who already secured employment in the state-controlled area, and those who fear army conscription or persecution of family members who did not flee. Furthermore, the recorded numbers only apply to citizens of Ukraine, as foreigners and stateless persons, including many Romani people, cannot be granted IDP status.

The Ukrainian state has not been prepared for such a rapid and unprecedented inflow of people and its response to the crisis has been largely inadequate. The financial difficulties of the country, coupled with a political crisis and the ongoing war in Donbas, has meant that there have been neither the resources nor the political will to properly address the needs of the IDPs and the problems caused by the displacement.

The most immediate solution has been provided in the form of social benefits for registered IDPs: each one is entitled to receive 440 UAH (approx. 20 US dollars) a month for the first two months and 220 UAH for another two months, with the exception of pensioners who receive 800 UAH, and families with children, who, regardless of the number of people in the family, are supported with 2400 UAH a month. However, the benefits have been rather symbolic and the basic rate is often not enough to rent a room in a medium-size town.

According to a UN official, who preferred not to be named, the most pressing problem facing the internally displaced is housing. Although the state is legally obliged to provide accommodation to people for the first six months of displacement, the available social housing and collective reception centres (often converted schools or sanatoriums) have been limited. The latter has only managed to accommodate between 30,000 and 40,000 of the most vulnerable people. The situation has been slightly better in the countryside and small towns. However, the lack of job opportunities outside of big cities has discouraged people from moving there.

In addition, the available accommodation has often been ill-suited for the needs of people with disabilities and for long-term displacement. People fleeing the conflict zone expect to be able to soon return to their homes, but reports by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights suggest that for the majority of the IDPs the displacement is likely to be protracted.

Accommodation options available to IDPs have therefore been limited and those who do not have family or friends to stay with have faced major problems finding housing.

Adding to that, due to the high inflow of migrants from the Donbas, particularly to Kyiv, Kharkiv and Dnipropetrovsk, landlords often refuse to rent properties to IDPs, fearing that they will not be able to pay rent.

The long-established prejudices against the inhabitants of the Donbas region have been a huge obstacle in the way of integration of many IDPs. According to Lesia Litvinova, a volunteer from Kyiv, there is a common stereotypical presumption that people from the Donbas are lazy alcoholics who are to blame for the war, as they have allegedly supported the separatist rebellion. However, in reality there are few pro-Russian migrants in Kyiv, as the ones who did support the rebellion have either fled to Russia or the war zone. Nevertheless, as explained by Lesia, “If your family comes to you for a visit – you’re happy to see them. But if they stay longer and you find out that they’re not planning to leave – then the problems begin.”

Discrimination is also common in the workplace, with many job offers openly stating that people from the Donbas will not be considered for work. It has therefore been difficult for migrants who find themselves in this new reality. Many of them left well-paid, stable jobs in their home towns to be faced with an insecure, overstretched job-market and an open distrust of their fellow countrymen.

Galina, a lecturer in International Economy and volunteer with the charity group Monsters Inc., is one escapee from Luhansk who has been lucky, as she managed to find employment at the university in Odesa, where she flew to from political persecution. According to her, people from the Donbas find it hard to adjust to the reality of central and western Ukraine because they have been used to a different socio-cultural environment. “The biggest problem faced by the IDPs is to realise that one has to work for it – people sometimes are waiting for help. This is due to the fact that Donbas has been a region where people were used to state support,” she said and added that, “in Odessa, people are more free, more open to business and more entrepreneurial. In Luhansk people have been used to government intervention, secure employment, [and] they are afraid of taking a risk.”

For Vika Vasilevska, a mother of three from Luhansk, isolation and loneliness were the most difficult issues in her experience of displacement. When she first arrived to Kyiv, she did not want to talk to anyone and only her experience with Frolivska 9/11, one of the local volunteer organisations, helped her integrate into her new community.

After receiving support for her family, Vika decided to become a volunteer herself, and found new friends. Despite the end of the fighting in her home Luhansk, she is not planning to go back. As she explains, “When I came back to Luhansk for the first time – there was a shelling. The second time – it was completely deserted, there were no people. When I came back for the third time, people had started returning, but the city had changed, people became very suspicious of my stay in Kyiv. So I don’t want to go back. It would be a step backwards”.

For both Galina and Vika, working with local volunteer organisations has been a way to get integrated into the community and support other IDPs. In many cases, people who were forced to flee their homes look not only for direct assistance but also for a place to belong, understanding, respect and someone to talk to.

Faced with the impotence of official institutions, volunteer organisations have virtually taken over the role of the state in providing assistance to vulnerable escapees from the Donbas. Starting from providing first-hand advice to new arrivals at Ukrainian train stations, and later offering legal advice, psychological support and medical services and, in some instances, emergency accommodation. Civil society has proved that it is capable of dealing with unexpected crises.

First aid supplies and food pick-up points have been operating in all major towns in Ukraine with huge support coming from local communities who bring clothes, money and other vital assistance to the distributing bodies. Frolivska 9/11 has recently opened up a special space for IDP children, which organises excursions to different institutions and workplaces to familiarise the children with different occupations and to help them to get to know their new city.

Other groups, such as the Kyiv-based Employment Center of Free People, gather job offers from the area in order to help people find employment. Training courses are also organised with the help of local communities.

According to Lesia Pagulich, the Kyivan coordinator of Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, volunteer groups have been more successful than the state in a number of areas, playing a vital role in the evacuation of vulnerable people from separatist-held territories. Often at a huge personal risk, volunteers have organised pick-ups of people from particular locations indicated by that displaced person, often having to negotiate with the separatists.

But evacuation efforts became more problematic in January 2015 with the introduction of a permit system to move between state-controlled and separatist-controlled territories. A potentially working security measure has greatly affected the situation of people remaining under the control of the separatists. The new system has been criticised by all the major human rights groups, as it impedes the delivery of humanitarian aid into and the movement of civilians out of the conflict zone.

The passes, issued by ”coordination centres”, are given to those people living in rebel-held areas who state an itinerary and provide a document justifying their trip, such as proof of residence in the state-controlled area or proof ofillness of a relative. With the lack of provisions allowing individuals to leave the territory simply for security reasons, the decision to issue a pass lies in the hands of individual security officials, which in consequence has led to widespread corruption. According to Lesia Litvinova, in order to receive a pass, people pay between 500-800 UAH in bribes, which adds to their vulnerability. In addition, the process is often lengthy and complicated with people having to provide a number of documents to make an application.

Since the beginning of 2015, the government has tried to address the problems faced by the IDPs in a more structured way by developing both the “Program for employment and professional training of IDPs in 2015 – 2016” and the “Comprehensive state program of integration, social adaptation and protection and reintegration of internally displaced persons for 2015 – 2016”. Although welcome developments, which assume a cooperation between all levels of government, civil society and international organisations, neither of the programmes has yet been drawn into Ukrainian law. It therefore remains to be seen how effective the new legislation proves to be.

With the response of state authorities being largely not fit for purpose, and in the face of the continuous influx of IDPs, the role of community-based volunteer organisations is becoming even more important. These outfits also serve a dual purpose: by providing direct assistance they also create a sense of belonging.

Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska is the blogs editor at E-International Relations and the lead editor of Ukraine and Russia: People, Politics, Propaganda and Perspectives. She has previously worked with a number of human rights organisations in Ireland and the UK, predominantly in the areas of refugee law, migration and ethnic minority rights.


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