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(Berlin) – Ukrainian authorities have not provided adequate protection and assistance to tens of thousands of Ukrainians who were forced to flee their homes, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to President Petro Poroshenko. People have fled because of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the ongoing armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.

While the Ukrainian government has recently taken some steps to provide assistance to displaced people, it should urgently intensify efforts to provide access to sustainable housing, social services, and other assistance, Human Rights Watch said. It should also provide information about evacuation assistance to civilians in areas where hostilities are ongoing.   

“The Ukrainian government has had to cope with multiple, profound crises in a short period of time,” said Yulia Gorbunova, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “But as the number of people forced from their homes in Ukraine grows, so also does the urgency of providing the help they need.”

Human Rights Watch spent nine days interviewing internally displaced persons in the Kiev, Vinnytsya, Kharkiv, and Lviv regions, and also spoke with local government officials, volunteers, independent groups, and international organizations providing them assistance.

Most of those displaced with whom Human Rights Watch spoke said they received little or no help from the government when they were fleeing from armed conflict areas or when they tried to get help with housing, food, clothing, and other essential items, as well as access to social services. Most also said that they did not receive any information about agencies or government bodies they could turn to for help. People who fled fighting in the east but remained in the region reported problems getting medical care because of shortages in emergency medical services, medication, and supplies.

Beginning in March 2014, the government issued decrees to establish mechanisms to respond to the needs of displaced people. But the directives have not yet led to improvements on the ground, Human Rights Watch said. Regional authorities tasked with providing assistance to displaced people do little more than shift the burden to volunteer groups and nongovernmental organizations. Volunteer groups that have been providing assistance are struggling to meet the need.

According to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the UN refugee agency, more than 87,500 people have been internally displaced in Ukraine since March, including more than 13,000 people from Crimea. Because not all displaced people register with the authorities, volunteer and independent groups that work with displaced people told Human Rights Watch that they believe those numbers are actually significantly higher and rising daily. Volunteer groups in Kiev and Lviv, for instance, said that over 100 people are arriving each day in those cities, most from the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine that are partially under the control of pro-Russia insurgents. Increasing numbers of people are leaving their homes but remaining in eastern Ukraine.

Several volunteer groups in Kiev and Lviv, as well as the displaced people themselves, told Human Rights Watch that the registration services set up by local administrations frequently refer displaced people to volunteers for housing and other needs, explaining that they lack funding or clear instructions from higher levels of government.  

President Poroshenko should ensure that the centralized registration system for internally displaced persons actually functions and that the central body established to coordinate efforts to provide housing and social assistance to displaced people in various regions has the necessary resources to carry out its tasks, Human Rights Watch said.

Ukraine’s parliament should adopt legislation that protects displaced people from discrimination based on their status and provides simplified procedures for obtaining new residency registration. This registration is a prerequisite to receiving urgently needed payments, including pensions and disability, child, and unemployment benefits.

“Volunteers are doing the best they can to provide medicine, food, and shelter for the displaced in Ukraine, but their energy and resources won’t last forever,” Gorbunova said. “With displaced people arriving in central and western Ukraine in large numbers, the national government needs to urgently step up the efforts to assist them before this crisis worsens.”

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