Ukraine’s Invisible Displacement Crisis

The 18-month, Russian-backed rebellion of eastern Ukraine has displaced more than 1.4 million residents from the eastern Donbas region into central and western Ukraine. It has cost nearly 7,000 lives, brought the economy of eastern Ukraine ̶ the economic and industrial heartland of the country ̶ to a standstill, and is putting increasing stress on a government bent on addressing the challenges of political reform, widespread corruption, as well as economic and structural adjustments.

In addition to the 1.4 million internally displaced, two million civilians remain in homes devastated by shelling on the line of contact (what is considered the frozen frontline of the conflict). Beyond this line of contact in the non-government controlled areas under the sway of rebellious “commanders,” an additional two million civilians are living in severe hardship. Basic amenities ̶ including water, gas, and electricity ̶ are in many cases unavailable as infrastructure has been hit hard by the shelling. Food is running scarce, amenities are often out of order, the banking system has ceased to operate, and prices have spiked two to four-fold for the same items elsewhere in the country. 

RI recently spent three weeks in Ukraine to learn about the government’s response to displacement and to investigate the outstanding needs of the internally displaced. In many ways, Ukraine’s displacement crisis appears to be invisible: there are no camps and very few internally displaced persons (IDPs) are hosted in collective centers. But as winter approaches, prompt action is needed. Families and friends who have kindly offered their homes for many months on end are growing weary of indefinitely hosting IDPs. Given the recent serious devaluation of the Hrivnia and high prices of essential commodities (including a steep raise in the price of gas used for heating), government benefits are far from acceptable. 

Winter in Ukraine is relentless, and time is running short for over five million citizens.

Additionally, host communities are tiring of the pressure IDPs are putting on local services. The eastern rebellion has already created serious tensions across the region. The continuing strain host communities are feeling by hosting IDPs may only exacerbate this additional strain on national unity.

The basic requirements in food, medicines, shelter, and essential items, as well as the need to repair water and electricity services in Non-Government Controlled Areas (NGCAs) are becoming more critical by the day. These needs are only exacerbated by the increasing restrictions both government and rebels are putting on the transit of people and essential goods across the contact line. The ability of humanitarian agencies to deliver assistance will require a more sympathetic approach by the government to ensure that assistance gets through as efficiently as possible. Forfeiting this responsibility will lead to more suffering and the potential exodus of the remaining Ukrainians in the eastern part of the country. 

The international community has a brief but vital opportunity to mobilize both development and humanitarian funds to support regional, public, and private initiatives to address critical shelter needs, reparation of essential services, job-creation, and integration of the displaced into their new communities. At the same time, it must ensure adequate funding of the humanitarian appeal, which was only 35 percent funded by the end of July.

Winter in Ukraine is relentless, and time is running short for over five million citizens.

Banner image: UNHCR.