Disclaimer: In the frame of the 70th anniversary of the UNHCR, the UNHCR Office in Ukraine invited volunteers to research and write about the situation in Ukraine. I am pleased to present my material. Any opinions, analyses, interpretations, conclusions, and recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or its Executive Board.
Alina is a 63-year-old pensioner who resides in a conflict-affected neighborhood of Donetsk oblast in eastern Ukraine. She takes care of her 42-year-old daughter who is a person with a disability and her husband who has recently been diagnosed with cancer. Today, the family’s scarce income is spent on life-saving activities and products, such as medical services, medicines, and food. For the longest time, the family was unable to buy a wheelchair for their daughter. For this reason, Alina’s daughter had to crawl around their apartment and could not go outside.
Andriy, a 72-year-old man from Avdiivka, a city in Donetsk oblast of eastern Ukraine survived the destruction of his home by shelling and subsequent fire in January this year. The fire destroyed all his documents and caused him to be hospitalised to treat the injuries he incurred. With no place to go and no family to turn to, Andriy remained in the hospital for over six months.
These kinds of stories have become routine in Ukraine, which has been consumed by armed conflict for the last seven years. The ongoing conflict started in November 2013, when protests erupted in the capital city of Kyiv after former President Viktor Yanukovych called off a trade agreement and suspended dialogue with the European Union, owing to consistent opposition from Russia that has economic and political interests in the region. This led to a crackdown by the state security forces, which only intensified the protests until February 2014, when President Yanukovych fled the country.
In March 2014, with Russian military forces entering into Crimea, an autonomous region of southern Ukraine with strong Russian ties, Russia formally completed its annexation of Crimea in a referendum that was largely deemed illegitimate. In April 2014, the government in Kyiv launched formal military action against pro-Russian rebels and separatists in eastern Ukraine, who then held a referendum and declared the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk independent from Ukraine. In May 2014, Petro Poroshenko won the presidential elections and came to power in Ukraine despite Pro-Russian separatists preventing people from voting in the east. In June 2014, Poroshenko signed the EU Association Agreement that was previously rejected by Yanukovych, thereby propelling Ukraine towards greater economic integration with the EU. In July 2014, a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down from over Ukrainian airspace by a missile above rebel-held territory in eastern Ukraine, killing a total of 298 people. Later, in September 2016, investigators would conclude that the missile system used to down the flight had been provided by Russia. In September 2014, Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists agreed to a ceasefire which was violated by Russia in November, as per a NATO commander.
By the end of 2014, UNICEF reported that a million children in eastern Ukraine were facing life-threatening situations due to the conflict and the harsh winter conditions. In February 2015, the Normandy Four made efforts to arrive at a diplomatic settlement to the conflict through ceasefire agreements. However, no agreements were signed. In June 2015, EU foreign ministers extended sanctions against Russia which had been imposed because of the country’s activities in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. In July 2015, Russia declared Crimea as ‘fully integrated’. Then, in December 2015, more than 2,25,000 people in Ukraine lost power owing to a cyber attack. In September 2016, after consistent confrontations, the Government in Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists agreed to a troop withdrawal from three fronts in eastern Ukraine under the framework agreement signed after the terms of the original Minsk agreement, which was concluded in September 2014, were never realised. The agreement signed in 2016 called for de-escalation along the ‘Line Of Contact’ and intended to create conditions to prevent the use of firearms. Then, in December 2016, parts of Kyiv experienced a power outage following a cyberattack similar to the 2015 attack targeting a Ukrainian utility company. This led to a Ukrainian security chief calling for enhanced cyber defenses, citing the recent attacks on Ukraine’s State Treasury, and Finance and Defense ministries’ websites.
In March 2017, a Ukrainian lawmaker released documents revealing that Paul Manafort, a former campaign manager to the U.S. President Donald Trump, laundered payments from the Party Of Regions, the party of former President Viktor Yanukovych. This also explained the escalation in the fighting between Ukrainian armed forces and Russian-backed rebels after Trump assumed office. In June 2017, government and business computer systems across Ukraine were affected by the NotPetya cyberattack carried out by Russia, which caused large-scale economic damage across the world. In July 2017, violating the Minsk agreement, the Donetsk People’s Republic announced the creation of a new country in Ukraine called Malorossiya, which translates to “Little Russia”. In December 2017, the Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists conducted the first prisoner swap, when they paused fighting to exchange nearly 300 prisoners. In January 2018, the government in Kyiv passed a law to reintegrate eastern Ukraine by defining areas seized by separatists as “temporarily occupied by Russia” and called Russia an “aggressor state”. In March 2018, the U.S. State Department approved a proposed missile sale to Ukraine in a deal worth about 47 million USD. In November 2018, Ukraine approved martial law following a clash between Ukrainian and Russian naval vessels in the Kerch Strait, a strait separating Crimea from Russia.
In January 2019, a court in Kyiv found former President Viktor Yanukovych guilty of treason for a crackdown on pro-West demonstrations back in 2014. In April 2019, the EU condemned a decree signed by President Vladimir Putin to expedite citizenship applications for Ukrainians living in territories held by Pro-Russia separatists. In May 2019, President Volodymyr Zelensky assumed office in Ukraine. In August 2019, Ukraine offered citizenship to Russian political refugees and to foreigners who had supported Ukraine in the eastern conflict. In December 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met face-to-face for the first time at peace talks brokered by France and Germany, where they officially committed to a “full and comprehensive” cease-fire in eastern Ukraine. However, these commitments remain largely unfulfilled. On 28 April 2020, the OSCE(Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe) reported new Russian electronic warfare equipment in the separatist-controlled regions of eastern Ukraine. On 7th May 2020, the Ukrainian Security Service detained an individual from the eastern region of Luhansk who was then accused of attempting to transfer classified data on Ukraine’s missile system to Russia.
As of late, Russia and Ukraine have agreed to a ceasefire. The ceasefire agreement, signed on 27th July, comes after two dozen failed attempts, earning support from European Union officials, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Over the years, the conflict in Ukraine expanded beyond the term “territorial dispute” to become a humanitarian crisis of distressing proportions. Seven years since the protests in Kyiv, 5.2 million Ukrainian men, women, and children continue to be exposed to the consequences of a stalemated conflict. There have been more than 10,000 civilian casualties and about 1.5 million Ukrainian citizens have been forced to flee their homes to seek shelter in safer parts of the country. These Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are the most vulnerable group in Ukraine today — after the elderly.
The elderly, who make up 30% of those in need, are met with several barriers when claiming pensions and social benefits as a consequence of which over 6,00,000 elderly people were cut off from their pensions in 2017. Such barriers are particularly emphasised if they qualify as IDPs or reside in non-government-controlled areas (NGCA). In NGCA, citizens need to register as IDPs in order to access social protection and the authorities regularly re-verify IDPs’ continuing eligibility for pensions and social benefits. Other Ukrainian citizens are not subject to such scrutiny. This places IDPs under a discriminatory burden to access social assistance, especially in times when they are completely reliant on such assistance for survival. The process for securing social benefits is tedious and it tends to leave out eligible citizens because social assistance is fully linked to IDP registration, which cannot be completed unless a registration centre is accessible. At the same time, there is a need for a simpler procedure for birth registration for families living in NGCA and Crimea. At present, parents have to obtain birth registration for their child through a court proceeding which tends to impose additional costs and waiting time for the concerned families. Such delays in birth registration often place children born in NGCA, especially those born to families residing near the Line Of Contact in Donbas, at risk of being deemed stateless.
However, the suffering does not end there. Constant shelling along the 427-km-long Line Of Contact has destroyed property and social and economic networks in the region — cutting access to civil documentation, markets, healthcare, education, food, and fuel. Only two years ago, shelling led to interruptions in the water and sanitation systems. If this continues, it could bring the inter-dependent heating system to a grinding halt and prove fatal during the harsh Ukrainian winters. The primary challenge here is the lack of distinction between civilian areas and military positions. Constant and unprecedented military activity places the lives of 6,00,000 people living near the Line Of Contact at risk, particularly due to landmines and unexploded remnants of war (UXOs) which have caused death and injury to many. When moving across the Line Of Contact to visit friends and relatives or access utilities, IDPs in Ukraine face threats to their life. They are often forced to wait at checkpoints for long hours, exposing them to risks such as sniper fire, shelling, and mines. The authorities upgraded these checkpoints in 2019, but steps still need to be taken to maintain infrastructure, expedite the crossings, and make provisions for emergency medical assistance at checkpoints.
For IDPs in Ukraine, the displacement has outlasted available assistance from international organisations and exhausted their own individual savings. There is an urgent need for affordable social housing and better protection from the government to prevent evictions from collective centers. A lack of social housing is dangerous for IDPs with disability and even more so for IDPs with families headed by people between 40 and 60 years of age who might need medical aid. At the same time, the Government of Ukraine has not adopted any measures to promote long-term legal, economic, and social integration for IDPs. It has not implemented any legislation to protect their property rights or provide compensation for damaged land and property.
At this point, it is important to note that IDPs, although vulnerable, are not the only group suffering due to the conflict. The conflict has broadly affected all civilians on eight grounds:
WASH (Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene): The water system in Donetsk oblast in eastern Ukraine is centralised, extensive, and inefficient. Poor maintenance, exceedingly high power consumption, and obsolete sanitation infrastructure such as corroded water pipes, have led to barriers in treating sewage and supplying water to 3.9 million people. Hostilities along the Line Of Contact have placed water facilities at risk, particularly the Donetsk Filter Station that officially supplies water to 3,45,000 people in Donetsk oblast. Added to this, the profits generated from water supply have been instrumentalised to stir disputes between regions.
Education And Society: Since the beginning of the conflict in 2014, over 750 education facilities have been damaged and many more have experienced disruptions to education. More than 4,00,000 children experience the direct impact of the conflict as they live and attend school within 15 kilometres on both sides of the Line Of Contact, where shelling and extreme mine contamination threaten their wellbeing. The consequence of this is visible in the deteriorating mental health of students. More than one in four children in Donetsk and Luhansk is in need of psychosocial support. Children suffer from anxiety, social withdrawal, trauma, panic attacks triggered by loud noises, and many have developed speech impediments from living under constant shelling. In September 2019, the staff of an educational facility at Debaltseve, an NGCA, stated that children often showed fear and reacted negatively when unexpected noises were heard, “even when a door was slammed”. While the conflict has not affected enrollment at educational facilities after 2014, there is an urgent need for lifesaving Mine-Risk Education (MRE), especially for returning children who have lived outside conflict-affected areas and never received such training. There is also a major gap in the provision of adequate support for children in need of special education. Many of these children are enrolled in what is essentially distance education from home and many of them receive practically no education due to unavailability of special resources. Extreme monetary poverty has affected children, who have a lowered calorie intake and are being pushed into begging and sex work. In 2016, sex work and cases of sexual abuse of schoolgirls under the age of 18 and even under 16 (the legal age of consent in Ukraine) were reported by school employees at several schools close to the Line Of Contact. In an interview conducted by UNICEF, five schools said that sex trade involving sexual abuse of schoolgirls did not occur anymore but a few of their older students did have intercourse with soldiers, with some having since married and others becoming pregnant and being abandoned. The prevalence of HIV and AIDS in Donetsk oblast coupled with a lack of sex education places these women and girls in positions of increased vulnerability. At present, the sex trade and abuse of young girls is not as “open” as it used to be in 2015 and 2016, but has gone further underground and is still widespread. Another rising concern in education is the wellbeing of educators, who by making themselves accessible to students as first responders, themselves undergo secondary traumatic stress alongside the constant fear of school closures.
Food Security And Livelihoods: Large-scale displacement of people from areas near the front lines has been increasing the stress on both displaced and non-displaced populations and exhausting local coping mechanisms. Depleted incomes coupled with inflation in the form of rising costs of rents, utilities, food and other essentials are behind affected people, which includes around 87% of households in NGCAs, adopting negative coping strategies, such as spending savings, purchasing food on credit, going into debt, cutting health care expenditures, migrating elsewhere in search of work, or resorting to illegal work or high-risk jobs. Many households have reduced their expenditure on food and medicines to pay for utilities during the last 12 months. Families, particularly those headed by women and the elderly, are entering a period where they are unable to fend for themselves due to closure of mines and factories, and consequent unemployment. During the first quarter of 2017, unemployment increased to 18.3% in Luhansk GCA and to 15.6% in Donetsk GCA, while it remained significant at 23% for IDPs. To aggravate this, social payments such as pensions remained stable with the income of most pensioners falling below the actual minimum subsistence level. This has invariably led to poverty and food insecurity, especially during the winters when needs are higher. In Ukraine, food insecurity is also caused by food shortages as local agriculture is becoming an increasingly critical source of food for vulnerable households residing in rural areas along the Line Of Contact and in the NGCA. However, only 38% of IDP households and 46% of non-displaced households have access to arable land. Large areas of arable land, pastures, and forests are inaccessible due to military activities, landmines, or unexploded ordnance.
Humanitarian Access: In a country where 1.6 million civilians are in urgent need of assistance, the deepening political divide and lack of social cohesion have greatly impaired the ability of international organisations to deliver assistance. Access for humanitarian actors to the people in need as well as for conflict-affected civilians to life-saving goods and services remains a challenge in eastern Ukraine. There are only five checkpoints through which civilians can cross the 427-km-long Line Of Contact. In the case of Luhansk oblast, there is only one pedestrian bridge that connects GCA and NGCA. The lack of paved roads or even the complete absence of drivable roads is yet another hurdle for humanitarian access, including the risk of landmines and unexploded ordnance for civilians and aid workers.
Health And Disease: In the areas affected by conflict, no child has been vaccinated since September 2014. Immunization coverage has been undermined by a combination of conflict, lack of vaccines, and vaccine hesitancy. The country experienced polio outbreaks in 2015 and is at high risk for polio transmission, according to the Polio Regional Certification Committee. In 60 villages located in between the front lines, there are no medical personnel left. It is thought that in Luhansk there are only 30% of the medical personnel left to care for the sick. In Donetsk, there are 10–15% fewer medical personnel of the 85,000 that were based there before the crisis, straining health services needed for a substantial population. In NGCA, such shortages are also impacted by very low wages. The shortage of specialized health care staff is of particular concern as many remaining health care workers lack training, experience, and the specialised skills needed to treat patients with trauma injuries and medical complications. About 35% of primary health care facilities have sustained damages as a result of hostilities, and an unknown number are in disrepair due to lack of maintenance. In conflict-affected areas, medical supply chains have broken, creating shortages of medicines, medical commodities, and basic medical equipment. This disruption in the medical supply chain has led to the use of sub-quality medicines and equipment, which can be life-threatening. Apart from this, eastern Ukraine already had weak systems for medical data collection and evidence generation before the conflict broke out; the conflict has led to a further decline in data collection. Without the necessary evidence and data, it is difficult to make decisions about where to target medical resources and which interventions to prioritize. These gaps also undermine the ability to monitor the quality and effectiveness of the services provided to ensure healthcare actors are accountable to the people they assist.
Housing: In western Ukraine, authorities are struggling to provide housing and rent-free accommodation to the growing number of people fleeing fighting between Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian army in the east of the country. In 2014, in order to accomodate IDPs escaping Luhansk and Donetsk, the government turned to the private housing sector and the hospitality industry. However, “private sector” meant abandoned houses in inaccessible villages or dilapidated structures with minimal to no access to basic utilities. For those who have suffered property losses as a consequence of the hostilities in the East, the mechanisms for redressal and compensation are inadequate. The Government in Ukraine has also still not set up a database of members of the civilian population affected by the conflict or of structures destroyed by war.
Banking And Monetary Policy: Ukraine is in the middle of a central bank crisis. In July, a coffin and a row of funeral wreaths were placed near the home of former Chairperson of the National Bank of Ukraine (NBU), Yakiv Smolii, who was forced out of his position due to what he called “systematic pressure”. The rising political interference into the activities of the NBU, the central bank, could threaten the much-needed financial support Ukraine has been receiving from the United States of America, Europe, and the IMF in the midst of COVID-19 concerns and negative projections for the domestic economy which is expected to shrink by 4.8% this year. The banking crisis has, in part, been stimulated by former Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych’s undesirable involvement in U.S. politics. The crisis, some suspect, has also been caused by Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch aiming to weaken central bank governance and potentially regain control of his former bank, PrivatBank, which was nationalised by the NBU in 2016. Meanwhile, President Zelensky has undermined the independence of the NBU by siding with Kolomoisky, a move which could lead to large-scale misuse of future loans from the IMF and even money laundering by Kolomoisky and his lobby. The concerning part of this is President Zelensky’s defence of Kolomoisky, who has had a past business association with him. Kolomoisky has also been accused by Smolii’s predecessor, Valeria Gontareva, of instigating the attacks on the NBU. The ongoing political pressure on state institutions in Ukraine can lead to grave consequences at a time when the country is seeing a return of Yanukovych’s regressive economic policies and a Covid-19 induced recession.
COVID-19: As of 17 July, 57,264 cases of Covid-19 had been confirmed in Ukraine, including 1,456 deaths and 29,769 fully recovered. The rate of increase in confirmed cases has eased from its highest point in late June, when a record 1,109 infections were recorded in a single day, with approximately 809 new cases recorded over 24 hours. However, the fatality rate is not the only consequence of the pandemic for Ukraine. The Action Programme of the Cabinet of Ministers projects that Ukraine’s economy may shrink by 4%-8% this year owing to the pandemic. According to the latest Economic Activity Report released by the Ministry for Development of Economy, Trade, and Agriculture on 10 July, GDP fell by 5.9% year-on-year between January and May. At the same time, the banking sector in Ukraine is facing unprecedented tensions.
The economic impact of the pandemic has only been aggravated by price hikes and movement restrictions that have reduced access to basic services. In a recent food security assessment by NRC, conflict-affected respondents living in Luhansk and Donetsk said increased prices of food and hygiene items have adversely affected their daily life. At the same time, people in Ukraine are facing a loss of income and employment. The unemployment rate in 2019 was above 9% of the labour force, the share of informal workers in the economy remains very high (up to 30%), and the social safety net is weak. The government has suspended all movement across the Line Of Contact, a measure which has hit elderly residents especially hard by preventing them from accessing their pension payments and other social services, and rendering them unable to attend hospital appointments or even to withdraw cash.
However, Ukraine’s conflict has not paused during the Covid-19 pandemic. Frontline workers installing vital water and sanitation facilities were forced to run for safety after heavy shelling was reported in parts of Donbas last month. This halted crucial work to ensure people had access to clean running water to prevent the spread of the virus.
Even though UNFPA has urgently distributed medical kits containing disinfectant and personal protective equipment for health staff, people in Ukraine require other health services. For maternal care, the Pokrovsk Perinatal Centre is providing services to one third of the population of Donetsk. Since the onset of the pandemic, they have also been treating those with serious conditions and those from non-Government-controlled areas. Health services of this nature must continue, even as Ukraine reports new cases everyday. Despite being one of the few providers of healthcare service in Donetsk, the centre is perennially underfunded. In 2018, it received only 7800 UAH (about $270) from the city budget for the procurement of medicine. Lack of sufficient funding is a common challenge for most organisations working in Ukraine. In the last two months, only a third of the households assessed reported receiving humanitarian assistance. As of today, Ukraine’s revised Humanitarian Response Plan for 2020 has only received 15% of total required funding. A lack of monetary resources can be fatal for people in a country that is coping with a pandemic and a protracted humanitarian crisis at once.
In the year of the deadly wildfires in Australia, the floods in Indonesia, the cyclone in Bangladesh and India, the ninth anniversary of the war in Syria and the fifth in Yemen, and the Black Lives Matter protests — the world has forgotten a country that marks the seventh anniversary of a severely underfunded crisis and humanitarian emergency. Ukraine has become the site of a civil war, an invasion, a pandemic, and a recession. A conflict that started with a contested trade agreement in 2013 has become the cause of widespread internal displacement, poverty, disease, mortality, and an ever-reducing access to utilities and humanitarian assistance.
Today, the least you can do for the people of Ukraine is be informed, inform others about the conflict, and donate for the future of the country.