The current internal displacement crisis in Ukraine is the result of armed conflict triggered by Russia's annexation of the autonomous republic of Crimea in March 2014 and the subsequent declarations of independence by the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Ukraine has been fighting pro-Russia separatists in the east of the country since the annexation, and more than two million people have been internally displaced. With no clear prospects of the conflict being resolved, displacement is increasingly becoming protracted. There were around 730,000 IDPs living in government-controlled territory at the end of 2019.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Initially peaceful demonstrations began in the capital Kyiv in November 2013, after the then president Viktor Yanukovych refused a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union and opted instead to sign a deal with Russia. The protesters saw closer ties with Europe as the answer to the country’s poor economic and political situation. The demonstrations, known as EuroMaidan, spread and became increasingly violent, continuing until February 2014 when Yanukovych fled Ukraine and the opposition took power.
Russian forces appeared in Crimea shortly afterwards, seized control of military and government buildings and installed a pro-Russia leadership. Following a referendum backed by Moscow on the republic’s future, Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014. Many people fled before the referendum and after the annexation, whether out of fear or because of threats, intimidation and discrimination based on their ethnicity or political alignment.
Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk declared independence from the rest of the country in May 2014, prompting a military response from Kiev. Despite several ceasefire agreements, hostilities have continued and the two regions, or oblasts, have remained beyond Ukraine’s control ever since.
The resulting conflict, insecurity, violence and human rights violations have forced large numbers of people to flee, as has the lack of access to adequate housing, livelihoods, welfare benefits, social services, healthcare and education.
The volatile security situation, particularly along the contact line that spans five kilometres across Ukraine’s eastern regions, and IDPs’ dwindling access to supplies, local services and assistance mean there is also an ongoing risk of repeated displacement.
The majority of people who have fled the conflict are internally displaced. Some have left for Russia and other neighbouring countries, but their number is unknown. There is also little information on the number, location, movements and living conditions of people displaced in areas of Ukraine outside the government’s control, including Crimea.
Most registered IDPs in government-controlled areas live in urban centres in the east of the country. Some have moved on from the areas they registered in, but their movements have not been systematically tracked. Most fled the fighting in the east and were displaced as early as 2014. A small number of people fled Crimea before the conflict broke out, most of them members of the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority.
Many men stayed behind in conflict areas to take care of their family’s property and continue working while women and children fled. Many older people and others with limited mobility also stayed because they were unable to endure a long journey. This has led to family separation and increased vulnerability for the women and children who fled and the older people left behind.
Regional authorities have provided IDPs with collective accommodation such as summer camp facilities, hotels, dormitories and communal buildings for a small fee. Others live with relatives and friends, with host communities or in rented accommodation. Housing is not always suitable for people with disabilities and is sometimes far away from schools.
Many IDPs return to their homes temporarily to collect household items and check on their property. Others have returned more permanently because they are no longer able to afford to live in government-controlled areas. People who return to or flee from areas not under government control must pass one of five checkpoints along the contact line, where they are vulnerable to harassment and crime.
Some people living in areas not under government control have registered as IDPs to be able to access their welfare benefits, but they have to travel regularly to government-controlled areas to collect them.
The number of new conflict displacements recorded in Ukraine fell considerably in 2019 as fighting in the east of the country waned. Just 60 were recorded along the contact line that divides government and separatist-held areas, the result of violence, damage to homes, lack of services and forced evictions. There were, however, still around 730,000 people living in displacement at the end the year.
IDPs and others living along the contact line and in areas not under government control face chronic insecurity and limited access to water, electricity and medicine. Access to livelihoods and shelter is also inadequate. Some living in government-controlled areas have felt themselves obliged to return to insecure areas, including places where they face active conflict, landmines and little prospect of assistance. In 2018, 15 per cent more crossings were recorded at the five official checkpoints along the contact line, with 1.1 million crossings per month, over half of which were made by the elderly over 60 years old.
Accessing various forms of civil documentation remains a challenge for all those affected by the conflict, including IDPs. The lack of documentation limits access to services and benefits and hinders freedom of movement, particularly for those living along the ‘contact line.’ IDPs from Crimea and non-government controlled areas (NGCAs) face delays in obtaining passports or restoring lost or damaged documents. A generation of graduates in NGCAs risk having fewer higher education and employment opportunities due to issues around authentication of documentation received in NGCAs.
Displaced Roma are in a particularly vulnerable situation because they tend not to have national identity documents. Roma and other IDPs without documents are prevented from registering as IDPs, gaining formal employment, accessing healthcare and officially renting an apartment. Their situation is made worse by discrimination on the part of host communities and authorities. Little information is available on the needs of Crimean Tatar IDPs.
After five years of conflict, displacement has become protracted. The number of IDPs who intend to stay in their area of displacement outstripped the number hoping to return to their areas of origin for the first time in June 2018, according to an IOM survey.
The government has taken measures to assist and protect the country’s IDPs, including the adoption of a law on internal displacement in 2014. It also adopted a three-year strategy in 2017 to reintegrate displaced people and facilitate long-term solutions, and has run programmes in partnership with international organisations to support, resettle and protect them. Many IDPs have benefited from these measures, but many others still live in precarious conditions.
Representatives from Ukraine, Russia, the self-proclaimed people’s republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) agreed in October 2019 to organise elections in the two rebel-controlled territories. They would be held under Ukrainian legislation and OSCE supervision, and if deemed free and fair a special self-governing status for the territories would be set up that would also return control of Ukraine’s easternmost border to Kyiv. No date for the elections has been set.
Our estimate of the number of IDPs living in Ukraine at the end of the year is based on data provided by our partners, mainly OCHA and NRC. The number of IDPs in non-government controlled areas (NGCAs) is unknown, and the only verified figure is for IDPs living in government-controlled areas (GCAs). Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy had 1,428,919 IDPs registered as of 9 December 2019.
The government has placed a number of restrictions and conditions on its payment of pensions and other social benefits, which has led many people in NGCAs who are not displaced to register as IDPs in order to receive their allowances. The true number of IDPs is thought to be between 730,000 and a million. OCHA and other humanitarian partners endorsed the lower figure as the baseline for IDPs living in GCAs in the 2020 Humanitarian Needs Overview for Ukraine.