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It is crucial to ensure access to all citizens’ rights for internally displaced persons in Ukraine

Dr. Irina Kuznetsova is a Birmingham Fellow and a Lecturer at the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences a the University of Birmingham, UK. Her research expertise includes areas of migration, forced displacement, health, and critical urbanism. Kuznetsova's recent projects focus on the social consequences of population displacement in Ukraine, Russia, Rwanda, Nigeria, and Japan, including mental health and well-being, which have been funded by the UK research councils. Also, she studies the impact of migration on rural communities (AGRUMIG Horizon 2020 project). Recently, she led research projects on IDPs in Ukraine and Ukrainian refugees in Russia.  

1. What do you think about the efficiency of the Ukrainian government regarding accommodation of over 1 million internally displaced people from the Crimea and Donbas region since 2014?

The Ukrainian government was not ready for such mass internal migration, which is understandable considering the situation of war and economic crisis. In most cases, the role of state bodies was restricted by preparing documents for benefits (which is not enough even for food) for the separate categories of IDPs. The state did not have either resources or technologies for the social assistance of the displaces people. At the same time, Ukrainian civil society demonstrated a high level of solidarity and supported IDPs. Many organizations active as of today and providing help to IDPs were created at the very beginning of the conflict based on the spontaneous help. For instance, "Donbas SOS" was founded in 2014 as a hotline used for the quick coordination of assistance to the injured people. Today, the organization unites several coordinators and around 40 volunteers of the hotline; also, there is a network of regional volunteers in Donetsk, Lugansk, and some other regions of Ukraine.

The other organization, "Station Kharkov" got its name because of the specificity of its work: it was at the railway station where the volunteers were meeting people, who ran away from Donetsk and Lugansk regions consumed by war, were helping with things, searching of residence places, consulting regarding all possible questions which families forced to leave their homes for the indefinite time rapidly could have. The spontaneous efforts were supplemented with the more organized support very soon: The International Organization for Migration, The UN Refugee Agency, Danish and Norwegian Refugee Councils, Red Cross Society, Caritas, and a range of other international establishment started monitoring and targeted assistance of the separate categories of the Ukrainian IDPs, very often via local NGOs. Despite the constant lack of resources even with the international actors, namely, in 2017 more than 80% requests for means provision for the humanitarian needs of Ukraine haven't been financed, the local organizations have been improving within limits of possible, based both on the own developments and on the skills received by means of training and experience exchange with the foreign partners.

Because the involvement of the international organizations, which brought social assistance methods, as well as the resource possibilities of the third sector getting stronger, the quality and diversity of the services provided, have been gradually increasing. As a result, the public reaction to the different problems faced by IDP became more quick and efficient.

2. What measures should be taken by the Ukrainian government to improve legal mechanisms devised to assist such internally displaced persons?

I think it is not enough to talk only about 'legal mechanisms' to assist internally displaced persons. Formally, IDPs have the same rights as other citizens of Ukraine. The IDPs as other Ukrainian citizens face lots of issues in terms of access to affordable and qualitative health care, employment, they all suffer from bureaucracy and shadow economy. However, pensions remain the most severe problem. To get the Ukrainian pension, the citizens residing in the ATO area, need to become IDP. Not everyone can afford the relocation, and somebody for the understandable reasons does not want to leave their usual place of residence. Due to this, every month, the control checkpoints are crossed by thousands, and thousands of the retired people forced to get registered as IDP at the territories controlled by the Ukrainian government and going there to receive pensions. Representatives of the authority, who publicly discuss 'the pension tourism,' divided the citizens on 'ours' and 'others,' blaming indirectly the retired people living 'on the different side' for not leaving the ATO territory. Also, not only those who live in ATO but thousands of pensioners who moved to government-controlled areas had their pensions suspended due to the mistakes of verifications. And despite the Supreme Court decision in September 2019, which states that pensions cannot be suspended/terminated, some of the IDPs report about the continued issues with their pensions.

At the same time, pensions, accommodation, and employment are not everything. War and displacement have had an impact on mental health. According to our survey, the prevalence of depression and anxiety is much higher for IDPs comparing with the general population, and the mental health of women is more affected by displacement concerning anxiety than men. However, the culture which prevents people from both IDPs and the general population from recognizing mental health issues and refereeing to the professionals, and the lack of affordable and qualitative services, resulted that the majority of the people with mental health issues do not receive any professional help. I argue that without seeing the specific needs formed by the intersections of gender, health and displacement, and understanding how many are denied their rights, not only will particular groups of IDPs continue to endure extreme marginalization but, overall, further efforts for reconciliation and social cohesion will continue to be very problematic.

3. Which experiences can the Ukrainian government draw upon to ensure better reintegration policies?

I remember, one person who has fled from Donbas to the government-controlled territory of Ukraine, in the interview during our research project, mentioned that 'Why should I integrate? I am a Ukrainian citizen. It is my country'. And I think this is a fundamental point – the core of the principle of policies towards internally displaced persons should be to ensure that they can feel themselves citizens and have all civil and social rights.

Many countries went through the process of internal displacement and post-conflict reintegration. Still, access to all citizens' rights and the ideology of reconciliation seems to be the universal way, but unfortunately, there are many barriers to reach that.

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