Expert Opinion

Divided and displaced in Ukraine: two groups facing two different futures?

Two groups of IDPs fleeing, two different futures await

In total, there are over 139,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) in the country, and our analysis has found that there are two distinct groups emerging - with 125,000 having fled from eastern Ukraine, and 14,000 from Crimea, mainly to the eastern regions that border Donetsk and Kiev.

While the latter group of IDPs are mainly politically active supporters of the new Ukrainian government, the public perception of the former group is that of separatist sympathisers, unwilling to work and ready to cause trouble. This narrative is reinforced through actions of the local media and politicians who tend to blow isolated incidents out of proportion.

In Crimea - following the secession referendum in March - threats or acts of violence on the basis of political allegiance, ethnicity or religion have fuelled much of the displacement. Politically active supporters of the Euromaidan movement that overthrew the last president, as well as the Crimean Tatars, an ethnic minority of over 240’000 on the peninsula with a history of anti-Russian sentiment due to being deported from Crimea by Stalin in the past, are being particularly targeted by the new Russian authorities and their supporters.

While many of the Crimean IDPs assumed their displacement would be temporary, the current reality is that they will most likely remain displaced on mainland Ukraine for longer, because they are not willing to return to Crimea as long as it is part of Russia. Moreover, they are unable to access their savings due to the closure of Ukrainian banks in the peninsula, and are unable to sell their assets because of new property registration systems that the Russian authorities are putting in place which will prevent the displaced from selling their original property. This in turn will make it even harder for them to rebuild their lives in the longer term.

On the other hand, IDPs from the eastern part of Ukraine, have already started to return - 24’000 people so far - mostly within the Donetsk region, but also from Kharkiv and Kiev. Most IDPs from the east are women and children. Men also fled but in fewer numbers as some opted to remain and protect the family property, while others have been unable to pass through either separatist checkpoints, or the Ukrainian army; the former draft men to fight against the army, while the latter are suspicious of men for this same reason.

This group of IDPs, knowing that return is on the horizon, are not planning to integrate themselves into the areas of displacement, which negatively impacts their relationship with the locals, already struggling with a lack of resources. Moreover, some of these displaced, contrary to the Crimean IDPs, are critical of the Ukrainian government and army, and openly supportive of the separatist movement in the east, giving rise to even more conflict.

Responding to the displaced

With the Ukraine government still reeling from Euromaidan events and the ousting of the former president, their capacity to respond was limited.  Despite this, local and regional authorities were able to provide immediate aid and services, including temporary housing.

Largely it has been the local NGOs, volunteer, and international organisations that have stepped up to assist IDPs in terms of helping them to find employment, finance and housing, as well as providing immediate humanitarian assistance. Local citizens also opened up their own apartments and houses for the displaced.

Yet according to OCHA, ‘most of the assistance, which is coming from local citizens and volunteers, is gradually fading away’.  Their resources are becoming exhausted, and tensions between IDPs and host communities are on the rise.

In June, the government agreed to pay 75 per cent of Crimean IDPs’ accommodation costs up to 1 July and accepted an action plan to streamline service provision to all IDPs. With the increase in IDPs’ needs and numbers, such measures have proven insufficient.

In response, the Ukrainian Parliament swiftly drafted an IDP law which the president, however, saw as inadequate, resulting in a veto. A new law is currently being drafted, that includes provisions to finance IDP housing for six months, improve access to services and benefits, establish compensation mechanisms for destroyed or lost property and provide preferential loans to Crimean IDPs. While much of it should secure positive change for some IDPs, there are also negative aspects and still plenty of room for further action.

For instance, provisions in the new draft legislation state that IDP men can be drafted into the army. If adopted in its current format, this law will contradict the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement that ensure IDP families are allowed to stay together in the aftermath of displacement. Principle 17 calls on the national authorities to ensure IDP ‘family members who wish to remain together shall be allowed to do so’. IDP families should be able to stay together to better cope with the psychological effects of the trauma of displacement.

Moreover, the Guiding Principles state that IDPs must be protected ‘against discriminatory practices of recruitment into any armed forces … as a result of their displacement’. There is a possibility that IDP men will be disproportionately drafted due to being perceived negatively. The deputy head of Dnipropetrovsk region administration, for example, already put forward an initiative for all IDP men of conscription age to be drafted if they are “living like parasites”.

The national authorities must take the Guiding Principles into account when drafting this legislation, and must continue to step up assistance to IDP.

Outstanding needs

Apart from the current humanitarian needs, housing remains the most urgent problem.  There is no information on how many of those displaced are currently living in the collective centres provided by the government, but the majority of those registered are accommodated there.

Employment is closely linked to the housing issue. According to Crimea SOS, a volunteer organisation created to assist the displaced, IDPs who have sought refuge with friends, family or other private citizens have higher levels of employment than those at the collective centres. A lack of information sharing, and the fact that many of the collective centres are located outside of the cities may be a contributing factor here, as well as the greater pressure on IDPs in private apartments to find their own living space quickly.

The housing problem must also be resolved as quickly as possible before winter arrives. Much of the collective centres are summer housing, and thus lack heating for the winter which could pose health risks in the longer term. 

Further to this, the school year starts in September meaning that displaced parents will have to enrol their children into new schools near their temporary homes. With a lack of funds to buy uniforms and books, and the long distances between some collective centres and schools, it is unsurprising that, according to OCHA, 80 percent of families with children want to return home as soon as possible.

Despite the increased activity on the side of the government and the new draft legislation, more must be done to satisfy IDPs’ outstanding needs. Ultimately, the state is responsible for the well-being of all of its citizens, IDPs included.

The above analysis is based on our ongoing monitoring of the situation, and includes information gleaned from interviews with UNHCR, the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group and Crimea SOS.

For more information on how IDMC calculates the number of IDPs in Ukraine, read our figure analysis, or visit our country page

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