Since Russian forces invaded Ukraine in 2014, more than 1.6 million people have been displaced by the conflict. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians fled their homes to escape the war in the eastern Donbas region. Others fled from the new Kremlin regime installed on the annexed Crimean peninsula. Yet few received the financial and social support needed to restart their lives. Instead, many have been stripped of their dignity, voice, and rights.
Ukraine currently has the 9th largest population of internally displaced people (IDPs) in the world. Despite this, humanitarian groups and think tanks say both Ukrainian government and international authorities are failing to adequately respond to the situation.
Now, a new report from the Atlantic Council is urging both local and international bodies to redouble their efforts to address the IDP crisis in Ukraine. The report argues that internally displaced people may be the key to a successful peace process in Ukraine.
Hromadske spoke to Geysha Gonzalez, associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, about the findings of the report. Hromadske was also present at the conference discussing the report in Kyiv on November 28.
The first wave of internally displaced persons came from Crimea in March 2014. It started with Crimean Tatars, journalists and pro-Ukrainian activists leaving in response to Russia’s presence on the peninsula. Within a year, the number of registered IDPs increased to more than a million. And later, that grew to some 1.6 million. It is widely understood that the growing number of IDPs reflects not only the ongoing military conflict in the Donbas but also new government policies that cut off social payments, including pensions, to anyone residing in occupied territories.
Human rights groups and international organizations have harshly criticized the decision to suspend pensions to those living in non-government controlled areas. But this is far from the only form of discrimination faced by internally displaced persons.
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During the 2016 local elections, displaced persons could not vote without losing their IDP status, which allows them to receive state benefits. Furthermore, both employers and landlords are reluctant to take on IDPs. And although a Ministry of Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs was established in 2016, it is currently understaffed and has a “weak mandate.”
George Tuka, Deputy Minister for Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs told the conference that negative coverage of IDPs in the media has also influenced Ukrainian attitudes towards this vulnerable group of citizens.
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Relief efforts have largely been driven by non-government organizations and local initiatives — some of which have been led by IDPs themselves.
The Atlantic Council’s new report not only calls for greater assistance to Ukraine’s internally displaced, but also argues that they may be the solution to establishing peace in the Donbas and understanding between the east and west of the country.
Discussing the report during one of the conference panels in Kyiv, Lauren Van Metre, a professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs and report co-author, said Russia’s aggression in the east was meant to tear at the fabric of Ukrainian society but it had the opposite effect.
“You see in the discussions with the IDPs that, in fact, they are very much at home and in touch with families and friends in the east and at the same time that they are integrating locally in the west,” she said.
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“And that has had an amazing identity shift for these Ukrainians who are now bridgers. They bridge both east and west, they have an identity that can translate and cohere Ukrainian society.”
Moderated by Hromadske’s Maxim Eristavi, who is also a nonresident research fellow at the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, the panel discussed the findings of the report and the response to the IDP crisis.
Gonzalez told Hromadske on Sunday that uniting the east and west is just one way IDPs are contributing to the peace process. The report states that IDPs are already contributing to local economies, getting involved in activism and advocating for their rights as well as supporting local reconciliation efforts.
Although Ukraine’s IDP crisis is currently one of the most significant in the world, it is also one of the most overlooked.
Melinda Haring, a report co-author and editor of the the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert news letter, said that, reading international newspapers, no one would guess that Ukraine’s IDP crisis was this severe.
“This crisis doesn’t get enough play in the news,” she said. “We think this issue needs far more attention and we don’t think the Ukrainian government is doing enough. We think the approach has been piecemeal.”
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John Herbst, director of the Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, argues that this happens because the suffering of Ukrainians has largely remained at home.
“The absence of suffering Ukrainians in Europe has weakened the European response to the Kremlin's ongoing aggression in Ukraine,” Herbst said at the conference.
Herbst suggested that EU leaders don’t understand the extent of the IDP problem in Ukraine.
“Because Ukraine has dealt with this reasonably well on its own, they’re not getting the international support they need either in terms of financial assistance to deal with the IDP problem,” he told Hromadske.
Figures show the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs this year has received only a small fraction — $24.6 million — of the $214.1 million of the funding it requested for its work in Ukraine.
Furthermore, support from donors has also been falling.
“This is a problem,” Herbst said. “And also, because the Europeans don’t see this as a problem affecting them, they don’t recognize the full seriousness of Kremlin aggression in Ukraine’s east. So that encourages a weaker response to Moscow’s aggression.”
Gonzalez says empowering the ministry for IDPs and restoring social payments as well as voting rights to the internally displaced are among the report’s key recommendations for the Ukrainian government.
“There’s definitely a lot of work to be done,” she said.
“And that is why we wrote the report: because we need to highlight this issue, make sure that it's elevated internationally and really push the Ukrainian government towards the right direction on this issue.”
Meanwhile,one of the report’s key recommendations for the US government is tying Ukraine’s commitment to assisting IDPs to its wider reforms.
“I think this needs to be brought in the same table when we're talking about security, when we're talking about reforms,” Gonzalez said.
“When we're talking about the future of Ukraine, we should be also be talking about the IDPs.”
/By Natalie Vikhrov