Petro Poroshenko
President of Ukraine

Dear President Poroshenko,

I am writing on behalf of Human Rights Watch to ask that the Ukrainian government urgently intensify efforts to protect the tens of thousands of Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes in Crimea and in eastern Ukraine. We fully recognize that the government has had to cope with multiple, profound crises in a short period of time, not least of which have been the armed insurrection in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions and Russia’s occupation of Crimea. But as the number of people forced from their homes continues to grow, so also does the urgency of finding sustainable solutions for them.

Between July 1 and 9, a Human Rights Watch researcher conducted interviews with 19 people from Donetsk and Luhansk regions and Crimea who have been displaced to Kiev, Vinnytsya, Lviv and Kharkiv regions. This letter summarizes the experiences of those displaced, identifies shortcomings and gaps in the government’s response to their urgent needs, and proposes steps we hope the government will take to solve these problems.

Summary

In early July the Human Rights Watch researcher visited eight temporary living facilities for displaced people, both privately-owned and state-owned, in Kiev, Vinnytsya, Lviv, and Kharkiv regions. In addition to interviewing displaced people, our researcher met with staff of numerous civil society groups and intergovernmental organizations, volunteers that provide assistance to displaced people, and representatives of local authorities tasked with providing assistance to displaced people.

All displaced people said they received little to no help from the government when they were fleeing from armed conflict areas or when they have sought to secure 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 governmental bodies they could turn to for help. People who fled fighting in the east but remained in the region reported problems accessing medical help due to shortages in emergency medical services, medication, and supplies there.

Svetlana, who fled Kramatorsk, faced an ordeal that reflected the range of challenges people forcibly displaced from eastern Ukraine are facing. Svetlana, who has a congenital heart disease, said she has not received her disability pension since May due to the ongoing hostilities. Together with her two children, ages one and three, Svetlana fled her home on June 12 and arrived in Lviv a day later. On the night they left, her three-year-old child had a high fever, but due to the fighting in Kramatorsk he could not be treated. Svetlana said:

They told me that the hospital could not send an ambulance for my son because of the fighting. I just took my kids and we ran. We got a bus to Donetsk and were stopped on the way by the insurgents who checked passports of some men on the bus and threatened to shoot them for not fighting, but thank god, let us through. Then we waited in line at the train station in Donetsk. There were no tickets and no one knew anything. People who had friends or relatives in other cities were calling them and saying that they were on the way. I didn’t have anywhere to go [and no one to call]. Eventually I called the presidential hotline and they gave me a phone number of a volunteer in Lviv. I called her and she told me to get tickets to Lviv. She met us at a train station in Lviv and we spent almost two weeks in her small flat. We are now living in a dormitory room but we have to vacate it in September. I am not yet sure where we will go after that. I have not been getting my disability pension since May and we are completely dependent on help from a local church and local people who bring us clothes and food.

Although since March the government did issue decrees designed to put in place mechanisms to respond to the needs of displaced persons, our research suggests that these have not yet led to operational changes on the ground. Our research also suggests that regional authorities tasked with providing assistance to displaced people do little more than shift the burden to volunteer groups and civil society organizations. Volunteer groups that have been providing assistance are struggling to cope.

We have included detailed recommendations at the end of this letter but the three main steps we are asking the government to take are:

  • To establish, as a matter of priority, a functioning centralized registration system for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and ensure that the central state body established to coordinate efforts to provide housing and social assistance to IDPs in different regions is functional and has the necessary resources to carry out its tasks;
  • To urge parliament to adopt legislation that protects IDPs from discrimination based on their status and provides simplified procedures for obtaining new residency registration that is a prerequisite to receiving urgently needed social payments, such as pensions, and disability, child, and unemployment benefits; and
  • To ensure that information is available to IDPs about government agencies and independent groups that can provide assistance to them in various regions, and that information on evacuation assistance is available to those seeking to flee armed conflict areas.

Scope of the crisis

According to the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, over 87,500 people have been internally displaced in Ukraine since March, including more than 13,000 people from Crimea. Because not all displaced persons register with the authorities, volunteer and independent groups that work with displaced people told Human Rights Watch that they estimate that those numbers are in fact significantly higher and rising daily.

International organizations, including the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), and independent groups said that since May, the number of people displaced from eastern Ukraine has risen dramatically while the flow of people arriving from Crimea has decreased. Volunteer groups in Kiev and Lviv, for instance, said that over 100 people, mostly from Donetsk and Luhansk regions in eastern Ukraine, continue to arrive daily in those cities. Increasing numbers of people leave their homes but stay in eastern Ukraine.

As the number of IDPs, especially from eastern Ukraine, continues to rise, allocated resources are becoming more strained. Despite this, displaced people—of different ethnic backgrounds—have praised the support and friendliness shown by local residents, and none of the people who spoke with Human Rights Watch, including Crimean Tartars and ethnic Russians arriving in Kiev and western parts of Ukraine, reported language-related or any other kind of ethnic tension.

However, several volunteer groups in Lviv, Vinnytsya, and Kiev fear that “host fatigue” is setting in, and that the “resource of good will” among local residents might be wearing thin. Additionally, in June, several local administrations, including those of Kiev and Lviv, announced that those cities cannot absorb any more displaced people.

Several volunteers in Vinnytysa and Lviv regions told Human Rights Watch about a rising level of resentment among the local population because of a fear that IDPs would take jobs and resources, especially in places that have received many displaced people. Lviv volunteers also said that in isolated cases, realtors refused to rent flats to people displaced from the east. Human Rights Watch heard reports of regional administrations refusing to provide housing assistance to “able-bodied men” from the Donbass region due to concerns that they might be supporting insurgents and could clash with local residents. An official from a regional administration who asked to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch about an “unspoken rule” among administration officials not to provide housing to men from the east because they should be fighting together with the Ukrainian army. She said: “We think that strong men from eastern Ukraine should stand and fight with our soldiers. It is their territory and they should defend it, not hide behind our backs.”

Government response

As set out in principle 18 of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, the national authorities have a responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to IDPs within Ukraine. That responsibility includes protection from discrimination and ensuring that IDPs have safe access to:

  • Essential food and potable water;
  • Basic shelter and housing;
  • Appropriate clothing; and
  • Essential medical services and sanitation.

Our research indicates that government authorities are not taking the leading role in providing and ensuring access to such services, and that they are effectively letting IDPs fend for themselves, relying on the intervention of volunteers, including churches and civil society organizations, to provide assistance to those in need.

Gaps in general provision of services

While the authorities’ response to the influx of displaced people varies from region to region, they have generally failed to address the majority of displaced people’s basic needs. Despite a June 11 decree establishing a Coordination Centre in Kiev, in practice there is no functioning state body in charge of coordinating the response, an inadequate legislative framework, and no functioning centralized registration system for displaced people who arrive in different parts of Ukraine from Crimea and eastern Ukraine.

Regional administrations tasked by the state government with registering and assisting displaced people seem to lack funding, internal coordination, and expert guidance. In most cases examined by Human Rights Watch, they struggle to provide needed assistance to displaced people who arrive in their regions.

On June 25, the Cabinet of Ministers passed a decree that stipulates the provision of financial assistance to persons displaced from Crimea and Sevastopol, but as of this writing, there is no mechanism for distributing the funds. No one was able to provide Human Rights Watch with information confirming any displaced people had received such payments. As of this writing, there is no legal or administrative framework that sets out the kind and scope of financial assistance to which people displaced from eastern Ukraine may be entitled.

On June 11, a Cabinet of Ministers’ decree established a Coordination Centre in Kiev, headed by the deputy head of the State Service for Emergency Situations and tasked with providing overall guidance and coordination on a wide range issues related to displaced persons. These include evacuation from conflict zones, setting up a registry of available housing, and assisting with access to social services. Prominent groups that work with displaced persons told Human Rights Watch that the government did not consult with them before issuing the decree, and no independent groups or volunteer organizations were invited to take part in the initiative. Several volunteer groups in Kiev that arrange housing and other assistance for displaced people told Human Rights Watch that they were surprised to learn that such a center was created and, supposedly, operational. They also said that when they have tried to contact the center for assistance evacuating people from Donetsk and Luhansk regions, they received no help. A representative of the Crimean human rights group “Action” in Kiev told Human Rights Watch:

My colleagues and I called several times since it was supposedly created, people who came to us for help also called. They told one of us to only call them if there was an emergency of some sort, like “if the roof of someone’s house collapsed.” Next time we called and asked, if they had a registry of available housing, they said no. When we asked what that meant in practice for displaced persons, the man hesitated and then said that they “give people phone numbers of volunteers.” It really seems that they have no idea that they are supposed to help displaced people.

The central government has tasked local authorities with providing assistance to displaced people, but Human Rights Watch found they frequently shift the burden to local civil society groups, volunteers, and churches.

Several volunteer groups in Kiev and Lviv as well as IDPs 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 and/or clear instructions from above.

For instance, in March, the Kiev city administration set up a Registration Centre tasked with assisting people fleeing Crimea to find housing and employment. Volunteers with assistance groups like Dom Druzei (House of Friends) and Crimea SOS said that instead of providing assistance directly, the center has been either turning displaced people away or referring them to volunteers. A volunteer from one group summarized the problem:

The registration place is located far from the city center [and] is not accessible by public transport which in itself is a problem for people who are already exhausted by a long journey; some have large families with several small children and no possessions or money because they left in a hurry. Even if they make it to this center, they are met with [officials] without adequate training, whose greeting is: “We can’t help you with anything. There is no room in Kiev.” When people ask where they should go next, they say: “We don’t know. We don’t keep a database of places.” Most of these people who arrive here have not been paid for months, don’t have any money left and can’t travel anywhere else. Sometimes officials just give people our cell phone numbers and they call us and we have to come up with ways to help.

Elena, who left her hometown in the Luhansk region on June 20 after an acquaintance from the Ukrainian National Guard warned her family about the upcoming military operation in her town, is currently living in a private sanatorium near Kiev with 184 other displaced people. She told Human Rights Watch:

When we arrived in Kiev, we had no idea where to go. Someone who was on the train with us told us to come to Komarova 7 [the address of the Registration Centre]. When we got there, they told us: “There is nothing available in Kiev, go somewhere else.” I had no place to go, in Kiev or elsewhere. I was desperate, had no money and just had a long journey from Luhansk, which we left in a hurry because we didn’t want to be killed. Eventually we got help from a volunteer group who brought us here. I don’t know how long we will stay here but I know that going back to places where there is a war going on is not an option for me and my three kids.

Gaps in legislative protections

Since March, parliament has passed several regulations and laws regarding displaced people, but significant protection gaps remain.

The “Law on the rights and freedoms of citizens and legal regime on the temporary occupied territory,” adopted on April 15, 2014, provides for simplified access to education, medical care, and other social services for people displaced from Crimea but lacks implementation mechanisms and does not cover displaced people from other regions.

This law was to be supplemented by a bill “On the legal status of persons who were forced to leave their place of residence as a result of the occupation of Autonomous Republic of Crimea and of the conditions connected with the conduct of the counter-insurgency operation on the territory of Ukraine” adopted by parliament on June 19. However before adopting the law, parliament did not consult groups that provide services to migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers and have expertise on issues affecting internally displaced people. UNHCR had criticized the law for not protecting persons against discrimination on the grounds of their displacement. The law also failed to provide procedures for simplified residence registration, which is required in order to access unemployment and a whole range of social welfare benefits, open a bank account, or register as a private entrepreneur. We therefore welcome your refusal to sign the bill into law, for there is now an opportunity for parliament to improve the legislation by consulting with those who have expertise to offer and to address critical issues facing IDPs, such as the residential registration process and protection from discrimination.

Process of displacement

As you know, the flow of displaced people from Crimea started in March, around the time of Russia’s occupation and annexation of Crimea and included activists who feared retaliation for their pro-Ukraine position and ethnic Tatars, who openly opposed the annexation. The flow of displaced people from the east that started in May initially also included political activists and journalists that opposed the anti-Ukraine insurgency. However, as the counter-insurgency operation advanced and fighting between insurgents and Ukrainian forces intensified, ordinary people also started fleeing the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, especially towns controlled by insurgents at the time, such as Sloviansk and Kramatorsk. While the largest number of people currently displaced hail from eastern Ukraine, displacement from Crimea also continues. According to UNHCR estimates, a third of displaced people are children.

The majority of people interviewed by Human Rights Watch who came from eastern regions of Ukraine said that they fled from the ongoing hostilities. Those coming from Crimea said they left out of fear of persecution due to their political views or religious and ethnic background. Several people also said that they did not want to be forced to obtain Russian citizenship. Several activists for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) equality have reportedly left Crimea fearing implications of Russia’s anti-LGBT legislation. Additionally, civil society activists told Human Rights Watch that a group of people who were receiving opioid substitution therapy (OST) in Crimea have left Crimea for other parts of Ukraine after statements in March by Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service that OST was incompatible with Russian legislation.

Immediate assistance to those evacuating

In a June 7 media interview, the head of the Ministry of Regional Development acknowledged that there was no ministry or department responsible for people who are evacuating from the east. The deputy head of Donetsk’s regional administration confirmed that the central government does not assist people in getting out of volatile regions and that the task of evacuating people is carried out mostly by volunteers.

Many people displaced from the east and interviewed by Human Rights Watch described leaving abruptly, without most of their possessions or a clear understanding of where they could go. Those who had no relatives or friends in other parts of Ukraine said they had an utter lack of information about places where they could obtain urgent assistance.

For example, Anna, 27, who left Kramatorsk on June 15, said:

They started shooting frequently three weeks before we left but we kept hoping that it would stop. On June 13, the windows in our flat blew out because of an explosion nearby. The next night we all slept on the floor away from the windows. But the explosions got louder and louder so we went to our country house. That night the house shook from explosions so we slept in the basement, my six year old was crying all night. In the morning, we got a bus to Donetsk. We had nothing with us, we’ve been here [in Kiev] for almost a month and I am still wearing the same t-shirt. They would not let people take anything on the bus because there was no room and so many people wanting to leave. So the driver told people to leave their bags of clothes and food behind if they wanted to save themselves.

Anna also said that they were not sure where to go and had no financial resources:

Most people in Kramatorsk haven’t been paid for two months. I work for the railroad so I got my salary but my husband, who worked at a factory, has not been paid since May. My husband’s brother, who is a doctor, is still in Kramatorsk. He wants to leave but they have no money.

Elena, 50, from the city of Krasnodon in Luhansk region, said she took her three daughters, ages 6, 16, and 18, and left after hearing rumors of possible attacks:

My former husband’s acquaintance is in the National Guard. When they shelled Metallist [a village near Luhansk] in mid-June, he called my husband and told him that in three days the same thing will happen in Krasnodon. I did not raise my children to see a war in the 21st century. My ex-husband gave me money and we left on the same day. My mother stayed, she is elderly and did not feel strong enough to travel.

Access to housing and other services

The majority of displaced people who fled to central and western Ukraine either stay with friends or family members or use private housing arranged by such volunteer groups as House of Friends, Crimea SOS, Vostok SOS, Volonterskaya Sotnya, Krymska Hvilya, and others. In Kiev, groups such as House of Friends have set up databases of local residents willing to temporarily house displaced persons in their private flats and houses. For instance, a coordinator with House of Friends told Human Rights Watch that as of June 20, the group had been able to arrange temporary housing for at least one-third of the approximately 800 people (300 families) that had contacted them for assistance.

Regional authorities have in some cases arranged for hotels, dormitories, study centers, and resort areas to temporarily host displaced people. Conditions vary but are mostly satisfactory; some establishments, however, are not suitable for long-term habitation. For instance, since May approximately 100 Crimean Tatars have been staying at a vocational school in Novaya Greblya, a village near the town of Vinnytsya, that has no showers or kitchen while they are waiting for a dormitory that is currently being renovated, an activist from Vinnytsya Human Rights Group told Human Rights Watch. About 68 people—including 27 children—displaced from Crimea and Sloviansk are staying in the former summer camp “Sosnovy Bor” in the town of Vorsel, near Kiev, which has been in disuse since 1968. Several told Human Rights Watch about the mold and broken showers and toilets. A volunteer with the group Volonterskaya Sotnya told Human Rights Watch that the displaced people are working to improve their living conditions using materials provided by volunteer groups.

In most cases, the temporary housing provided is not sustainable for different reasons: some lack central heating and cannot be used during fall and winter, while some displaced people have had to leave other housing because of unresolved rent or other issues. For instance, a group of Crimean Tatars who had been living in a summer camp in Vinnitsya had to leave when children arrived for the season. Local activists in Lviv told Human Rights Watch that hotels and resorts had told them that they had begun to give displaced people deadlines for moving out so that the establishments could receive paying guests.

Human Rights Watch also spoke with a group of Crimean Tatars who arrived in Vinnytsya after leaving Crimea in the middle of March and are currently living on the premises of an Evangelical Baptist church in Vinnytsya. The group includes 45 people, including 26 children, 3 pregnant women, and a wheelchair-bound man. Yusuf, one of the elders, and several other members of the group, told Human Rights Watch that they were experiencing difficulties finding long-term housing that would allow them to focus on finding work and becoming self-sufficient.

Residence registration and access to social services

Most people displaced from Crimea who currently reside in Kiev, Vinnytsya, and Lviv regions who spoke with Human Rights Watch talked about continuing problems obtaining new residency registration, resulting in them not being able to receive their social payments, including pensions; access banking services; register for unemployment; or conduct other activities, such as registering as a private entrepreneur.

For instance, “Tatiana,” is an entrepreneur who left Crimea in early March because she received threats from pro-Russian groups for her openly pro-Ukrainian position. She told Human Rights Watch that the authorities would not allow her to register as an entrepreneur in Kiev (as she is required by law to do to start working) or open a bank account because she was still registered as an entrepreneur in Crimea, but that she was also unable to de-register in Crimea. The authorities in Kiev did offer to provide her housing at a homeless shelter, but then she was required to provide a document to the effect that she had no private property in Crimea. As an IDP, “Tatiana” is forcibly displaced from Crimea, and therefore unable currently to access or utilize her property there or work there, yet the authorities are using the very factors that render her an IDP as barriers to providing her access to an adequate standard of living. Others described the same arbitrary, bureaucratic barriers preventing them from accessing their benefits.

“Reshat,” also from Crimea, currently lives in the town of Drogobych outside Lviv. He told Human Rights Watch that because of continuing problems obtaining new residency registration, he could not register for unemployment benefits and had to rely on donations from a local church to provide for him and his family of four while he was solving housing issues and looking for work.

Marina from Luhansk, who is currently living in a state-provided dormitory of a local college of technology in the town on Drogobych near Lviv said that she had a private construction-related business in Luhansk together with her husband. She said she fled from Luhansk in a hurry with her two children, 11 and 14, after she heard shots being fired on the street. She said she had no residence registration and was not able to get unemployment benefits because she was still registered as an entrepreneur in Luhansk but could not travel back to de-register because of the ongoing armed conflict.

We fully recognize the dire and multiple crises your government is currently facing. We urge you to take steps to ensure the rights of people displaced by armed conflict in the east and occupation in Crimea. In particular, we urge the government to:

  • Urgently put in place a legislative framework that would simplify procedures for obtaining new residency registration and receiving social payments, including unemployment benefits;
  • Ensure that the centralized body created to coordinate IDP issues actually functions, has sufficient staff and resources to carry out its tasks, and that it works effectively with civil society groups that have been providing assistance to IDPs, including Crimea SOS, Vostok SOS, Dom Druzei, Krymska Hvilya, and many others;
  • Ensure that a centralized registration system for displaced persons adequately functions and that similarly a regularly updated database of housing opportunities in different regions of Ukraine actually functions;
  • Ensure that the appropriate government bodies are in a position to and do provide services such as relevant and accurate information; disbursement of financial assistance allocated for IDPs; assistance in accessing essential needs such as food, clothing, medical treatment, and shelter; and assistance in addressing and repairing substandard housing and shelter issues;
  • Ensure that government bodies that provide services to displaced people are located in easily accessible areas;
  • Provide training to officials from relevant ministries, including the Ministry of Emergency Situations, Ministry of Health, Ministry of Education, and others on how to work with displaced persons and ensure that they conduct regular visits to places where IDPs are housed to conduct needs assessment and consultations;
  • Ensure IDPs can easily access information on groups, agencies, and bodies that can provide assistance to IDPs in various regions;
  • Ensure civilians in areas where hostilities are ongoing have access to information on available evacuation assistance;
  • Work to ensure emergency medical, psychological, and consultative assistance is available in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions for people fleeing armed violence; and
  • Develop an action plan, in coordination with humanitarian groups and services on the ground, to respond to and meet the medium and long term needs of the displaced population.

We thank you for your attention to these concerns.
 

Respectfully yours,

 

Hugh Williamson

Director

Europe and Central Asia Division

Human Rights Watch