The current internal displacement situation in Ukraine started in March 2014. Following the annexation of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea by the Russian Federation, non-state armed groups seized parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and declared independence in May that same year. Fighting between Ukrainian government forces and non-state armed groups in the east of the country has triggered mass displacement. No concrete solution to the conflict is in sight, making displacement increasingly protracted. Although clashes have reduced in recent years due to several ceasefire agreements, there were still around 734,000 IDPs at the end of 2020, the majority of whom had been displaced during 2014 and 2015.
In addition to conflict, internal displacement in Ukraine is also triggered by disasters, such as floods and wildfires.
Average expected number of displacements per year – for sudden-onset hazards:
Peaceful demonstrations in Ukraine’s capital, Kiev, began in November 2013, after President Viktor Yanukovych refused a trade and cooperation agreement with the European Union. The demonstrations, known as Euromaidan, spread and continued until February 2014 when President Yanukovych fled Ukraine and the opposition took power.
Shortly afterwards, Russian forces took over Crimea, seizing control of military and government buildings and installing a pro-Russia leadership. Following a secession referendum in March 2014, Crimea declared independence and Russia then annexed Crimea. The Ukrainian government has refused to accept Crimea's independence and annexation by the Russian Federation.
In addition, non-state armed groups seized parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk and declared independence from Ukraine in May 2014, prompting a military response from the Government of Ukraine. Despite several ceasefire agreements, hostilities have continued and parts of the two regions have remained beyond Ukraine’s control ever since.
The resulting conflict was marked by a heavy toll on civilians, especially on those living near the contact line, which spans 427 kilometres across Ukraine’s eastern regions, dividing the government-controlled areas (GCAs) and the non-government-controlled areas (NGCAs). Civilians were exposed to abductions, forced recruitment, and indiscriminate weapons and attacks, such as improvised explosive devices and shelling of densely populated areas. The fighting and indiscriminate shelling also affected civilian property and infrastructure, leaving civilians often without electricity, gas, heating, water or food. The lack of security and difficulty in meeting basic needs became the main drivers of displacement.
On 5 September 2014, the Minsk Protocol was signed to implement a ceasefire and launch a process for a political solution to the crisis. However, the ceasefire did not last and fighting continued. A second package of measures for the implementation of the Minsk agreements, known as Minsk II, was adopted on 12 February 2015, again providing for a comprehensive ceasefire. Despite the ceasefire agreement and a series of recommitments to the ceasefire, violence has continued, as is reflected in the number of ceasefire violations. A recent decrease in clashes can be attributed, at least partially, to new measures to implement a ceasefire that were put in place over the years, the most recent of which was agreed upon in July 2020.
In addition to conflict, Ukraine is also subject to internal displacement triggered by disasters, such as floods and wildfires. In September 2020, wildfires prompted around 1,000 evacuations and damaged or destroyed 400 homes in Luhansk. Authorities struggled to contain the fires as they spread across the contact line, detonating unexploded ordnances. The explosions helped spread the fires further. Wildfires also broke out in April 2020 near the Chernobyl exclusion zone, triggering around 200 displacements as the fires increased radiation levels. In June 2020, heavy rains in four western Oblasts caused severe flooding and led to the evacuation of 800 people.
Most people who have fled the conflict are internally displaced. Some people left for Russia and other neighbouring countries, but their precise number is unknown. There is also limited information on the number, location, movements, and living conditions of people displaced in areas of Ukraine outside the government’s control, including Crimea. A small number of people fled Crimea before the conflict broke out, particularly members of the Muslim Crimean Tatar minority.
The largest waves of displacement due to conflict occurred in 2014 and 2015, when 647,000 and 942,000 new displacements were recorded, respectively. While thousands of people fled Crimea, the majority of people were displaced from eastern Ukraine. IDPs moved throughout the country, with many remaining in the eastern regions. Initially, women and children made up most of the IDP population with men staying behind to protect their property or because they were prevented by non-state armed groups from leaving. For the most part, IDPs relied upon private housing despite being unemployed and facing increasing financial insecurity. At the time, many people believed the displacement would be temporary, and that they would be able to return home.
Several years into the conflict, many IDPs still face difficult conditions and have not been able to return home, though fewer new displacements are taking place. Only 60 and 70 new displacements were recorded in 2019 and 2020, respectively.
Patterns of displacement in eastern Ukraine are also marked by pendular movements across the contact line. Many IDPs cross the contact line temporarily to visit their families and check on their property. In addition, some people registered as IDPs with the Ukrainian government and living in NGCAs have to travel regularly to GCAs to collect social benefits associated with their status. Due to difficulties in finding affordable accommodation and in obtaining the documentation required for employment in host areas, some IDPs have returned to places that remain insecure because of active conflict or the presence of unexploded ordnances.
Despite the decrease in hostilities in 2020, fighting and tensions in eastern Ukraine escalated again in 2021. Facing continued insecurity, hundreds of thousands of IDPs remain in need of humanitarian assistance. Moreover, displacement has become protracted for the 734,000 IDPs estimated by the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) at the end of 2020. According to OCHA, people living in areas affected by the conflict continue to face insecurity and limited access to appropriate shelter, health, livelihoods, water, and education. Some of these challenges are exacerbated for IDPs, especially due to barriers in accessing documentation, social benefits, employment, and housing.
With the exception of birth and death certificates from Donetsk and Luhansk, documents issued in NGCAs have been deemed invalid since 2018, when Law No. 2268 was adopted. In this context, access to documentation remains a key challenge for IDPs and residents of NGCAs and Crimea, as they face additional requirements and barriers in obtaining or renewing their identification documents with authorities in GCAs. In many cases, authorities in GCAs are unable to confirm the address of those residing in NGCAs, and consequently issue them documents without their residence registration information. Without this information on their documents, IDPs may not be able to access the public services that are linked to residence registration.
Furthermore, in order to continue receiving social benefits, including pensions, people living in NGCAs have to register as IDPs. Such registration requires crossing the contact line to GCAs, which has proven challenging for many due to issues including mobility, resources, or a lack of information. In August 2019, Resolution Nr. 788 was adopted to remove this requirement as a condition to accessing pensions; however, in practice, the Pension Fund continues to require IDP certificates from all those with their residence registration in NGCAs. This requirement also has a consequence on data on IDPs in Ukraine, as many of the people registered with the Ministry of Social Policy as IDPs (1.4 million) may not be in a situation of displacement – rather, they may simply be seeking to access the social protection system.
Lack of documentation may also prevent IDPs from finding formal employment. This compounds IDPs’ vulnerabilities in terms of livelihoods, as they generally face higher unemployment and have lower incomes than the average Ukrainian household. In June 2020, the employment rate among IDPs stood at 46 per cent compared to 58 per cent nationwide. Moreover, the average monthly income of IDPs remains lower than the actual subsistence level – an average of UAH 3,350 between April and June 2020, compared to UAH 3,975 (subsistence level).
With rent and utilities being significant expenses, housing remains a concern for many IDPs. In 2020, over half a million IDPs continued to live in rented accommodation, while 6,900 were accommodated in 155 collective centres. With no security of tenure, IDPs face possible eviction due to accumulating debts for rent and utilities.
IDPs’ vulnerabilities have also been uniquely impacted by the COVID-19 global pandemic. Domestic and sexual and gender-based violence have increased, affecting particularly women and girls amongst the IDP population. Movement restrictions put in place in response to Covid-19, including the closing of crossing points along the contact line, also prevented IDPs from accessing essential services or visiting family members. IDPs also experienced a significant decrease in income during the quarantine period, which in turn increased the risk of debts and loss of housing.
The Ukrainian government has taken several measures to assist and protect the country’s IDPs, including the adoption of a law on internal displacement in 2014 and the creation of the Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons of Ukraine in 2016 (which later became the Ministry of Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories).
In 2017, the government adopted a three-year strategy to reintegrate displaced people and facilitate long-term solutions. Programmes to implement the strategy have focused on housing, property rights, social benefits, education, employment, medical care, and support for host communities.
In December 2019, a new Electoral Code was adopted, giving IDPs the right to vote in local elections for the first time, and a resolution adopted in June 2020 guarantees IDPs’ right to vote in all elections.
In 2020, the Ukrainian Parliament adopted laws and introduced draft legislation that could play a significant role in improving IDPs’ living conditions and supporting their efforts to achieve durable solutions. Draft Law Nr. 4487 plans to introduce amendments to the law on internal displacement that would address the needs of IDPs facing protracted displacement, aiming to improve local integration, housing, and access to public services and benefits. Resolution Nr. 121 increased the minimum income ceiling for social housing eligibility, which had previously been so low as to exclude many people in need of housing assistance. A law amending the Tax Code was adopted in September 2020, which exempted IDPs living in certain collective centres from the tourist fee that they had been required to pay for using these facilities. Resolution Nr. 1311 removed the requirement that an IDP must have lived in a certain locality for one year before being eligible to apply for temporary housing. Resolution Nr. 767 was adopted in September 2020, which provides for compensation for people who have lost their homes or other property in Luhansk and Donetsk.
In September 2020, the Ukrainian government introduced an “e-IDP Certificate”, which would be a digital version of the existing IDP paper cards that would carry the same benefits and privileges as carrying the paper one. This was adopted as part of a government initiative to digitize many government systems and processes as well as official documents.
The Ministry for Reintegration also opened “service hubs” at the crossing points of Shchastya and Novotroitske to facilitate access to administrative and social services to people who need to cross the contact line. Other mobile service centres have also been deployed in eastern Ukraine.