The growing refugee crisis in Ukraine

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Behind the headline grabbing annexation of Crimea, separatist incursions in the Donbass and consequent “anti-terror operation” has been a growing humanitarian crisis that has been rapidly increasing in severity in the last month: there are now tens of thousands of IDPs (internally displaced people) and the number is rising. These are Ukrainians who felt they had no choice but to leave their homes, often taking little with them, unsure when they might return. After losing many towns in recent days, separatist commanders have now pulled back their men to the two big Eastern cities themselves, Luhansk and Donetsk, threatening another Stalingrad. It’s hard to even imagine the worst case scenario, but even should victory come fast to the Ukrainian army, it could take a long time to reintegrate those who have left: another challenge the new authorities In Kyiv could not have been prepared for.

The UNHCR has been in Ukraine for over 20 years but has had to quickly change focus away from transiting refugees (who pass through on their way to the EU), bringing in new people and coordinating a growing international response. According to its latest figures (9 July) almost 80,000 Ukrainians have registered as IDPs from both Crimea and Donbass. 114,000 people were also reported (see map below) to have left to Russia as a result of the unrest in the east.  The question of exactly how many Ukrainians have been displaced is impossible to answer, and the only sure thing is that regardless of any ceasefires the number is going up daily (as reporting by OSCE special monitors shows). In the past week alone over 10,000 more have formally registered and some estimate the total number could be two or three times larger. The problem is that many simply do not register. There are those who have gone to relatives or resorts, hoping to return soon, others report being scared of reprisals on their families should their details be shared. For many, the bureaucratic process has proven too difficult and the statistics do not include those who’ve left their homes but have stayed in the eastern regions. Conversely, the total given for displaced to Russia, while undoubtedly high, has been questioned being based solely on official figures from Moscow at a time when official Russian statements are becoming harder to believe. The UN has been unable to verify the numbers and journalists have not been welcome to check. Each of these needs shelter, food and access to social services, and each departure takes away from the local economies and services of their place of origin.

Source: UNHCR

They’ve left for different reasons. For all the growing action by the new authorities against the Crimean Tatars, most of those who have left Crimea (over 10, 000) are in fact Ukrainian, frightened of what life would be as part of Russia. In Eastern Ukraine these are ordinary people leaving a warzone. Even leaving aside insecurity, the deterioration of living standards has accelerated. According to UN figures 40 percent of families are having problems finding food. Access to health services and medical supplies has been limited (in Slavyansk all hospitals but one shut down), banking services have been severely disrupted (including access to welfare benefits and pensions), and water and electricity have been shut off in a number of urban areas. Although several major towns have been brought back under Ukrainian control, it’s hard to say if people will start drifting back any time soon. Simon Ostrovsky, Vice News reporter who was held hostage for several days, went back to Slovyansk and found it “a mess”.

In response to this sudden problem Ukrainian civil society has sprung into action and a host of small but hyper-active volunteer-run organisations have been established based in Kyiv. SOS Crimea was started by four friends when the first “little green men” (Russian soldiers) were spotted in Crimea, as a source of reliable information of what was actually going on. When it was clear people were deciding to leave, SOS Crimea posted on Facebook asking for help and were overwhelmed by the response. They now have volunteers working in Lviv in the West, Kherson in the South and the capital Kyiv, manning a telephone hotline, Facebook and Twitter, answering requests for help. Requests are mainly for places to stay - most often in people’s private homes. They have lawyers who help IDPs pro-bono and organise food and medical supplies. SOS Vostok, run by human rights activists from the eastern region of Luhansk, is one of many similar outfits, and estimates it has helped over 4000 people to date.

While aid has been focused on the regional level, the central government’s response has come under fire. People need to be registered to receive benefits and a single registration system is still not up and running, a new law on IDP status and assistance does not meet international standards and only recently has a member of the government, Deputy Prime Minister Hroisman, been appointed responsible for IDPs.

Maybe the closest comparison is Georgia after the 2008 August war when tens of thousands were forced to leave their homes in Abkhazia and South Ossetia. After many could not go back, whole new suburbs were built to house them, partly funded by international donors. We’re not there yet – but if it continues on this trajectory a number of medium to long term issues will come to the fore. How to find school places by September for all the thousands of children who have left to other parts of Ukraine? How do you reopen essential services when teachers, doctors and others have left? How do you rebuild that which was destroyed by the fighting? How do you get local economies working again? (60 percent of enterprises in Donetsk region are no longer operational). How do you get people to come back and rebuild trust in communities that were visibly divided in their loyalties?

Quoting the UN, “the situation does not yet require a wide-scale humanitarian response” and the country is coping. But as it stands the numbers are getting worse not better and Ukrainian tanks are now approaching separatist-occupied Luhansk and Donetsk, one of the biggest cities in the country that just two years ago hosted the England football team during Euro 2012. With the fighting to come it could yet get a lot worse but even in the best case scenario there will be a lot more to fix in Eastern Ukraine than anyone anticipated back in February when Yanukovych was deposed.

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