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People queue before leaving the territory of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic and crossing a separation line with Ukraine at a checkpoint, which was temporary closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak and then reopened, in Donetsk Region, Ukraine. June 22, 2020. © 2020 REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

(Kyiv) – Dozens of people are stranded in a “gray zone” between the warring parties in eastern Ukraine, unable to cross the line separating areas controlled by the government from those controlled by Russia-backed armed groups, Human Rights Watch said today. Ukraine reopened these checkpoints on June 10, 2020 after closing them for almost three months in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But under Covid-19 restrictions, the government requires people crossing to download an app to monitor compliance with self-isolation orders, denying entry to anyone who doesn’t have a smartphone. Russia-backed armed groups in the Donetsk region have turned back many people attempting to cross into areas they control and have forced those who leave to sign documents saying they will not return until the public health situation has improved. Ukrainian authorities should stop requiring people to download the monitoring app, and Russia-backed armed groups should stop refusing to readmit people.

“Dozens of people have had to camp out, in some cases overnight, in the middle of an active military conflict, just because they didn’t have a smartphone to download an app,” said Laura Mills, Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Ukraine is still facing a public health emergency and should take measures that protect people from the virus, but this highly invasive app is clearly putting people crossing the line of contact further in harm’s way.”

On April 6, the government began requiring anyone crossing borders into Ukraine to download the “Act at Home” app, which monitors whether they are adhering to self-isolation for 14 days at their stated address. People who don’t want to or cannot download the app can quarantine at a medical facility. But authorities in eastern Ukraine do not offer this option to people crossing through checkpoints.

Monitors at the Novotroitskaya crossing point in Donetsk region told Human Rights Watch that this policy has led to total chaos. Dozens of people trying to cross since the checkpoints reopened could not download the app because they do not have smartphones, and so were denied entry to government-controlled territory. Monitors said that more than half of people who have been stranded are older people.

When some people attempted to return to non-government controlled areas, they were not allowed to because they had signed documents, required by these authorities since June 21, stating that they would not return until “the improvement of the epidemiological situation.”

Right to Protection, a Ukrainian group that provides legal and other assistance to people displaced by the armed conflict, told Human Rights Watch that more than 30 people who could neither enter Ukraine nor return to non-government controlled areas were forced to camp outside overnight without shelter on June 23 in the seven-kilometer “gray zone.” This area is not controlled by either side and is still the scene of active fighting. These conditions pose particular health risks to older people, who are already at heightened risk of serious illness or death from Covid-19.

On June 24, this group was allowed to spend the night at a Ukrainian-controlled checkpoint in tents provided by Ukraine’s State Emergency Services. But in the morning, they were driven back to the gray zone. Right to Protection said the group took shelter from the sun in the adjacent woods, which is highly dangerous given that the area is one of the world’s most heavily contaminated by landmines.

People in this group may leave the gray zone if a relative or acquaintance can come to the checkpoint to give them a smartphone that they can use to download the app. However, given remote distances and difficulties people may face reaching out to relatives, this can take days. A Right to Protection monitor said he had spoken to a woman who brought a smartphone for her 90-year-old father, who she said had been stuck in the gray zone for two days.

It is not clear whether people receive any information about the mandatory app upon leaving non-government controlled areas before entering the gray zone.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, people in eastern Ukraine made on average 1.3 million crossings across the line of contact each month. The vast majority are pensioners who need to cross regularly to get their pension, many of whom endure significant hardship as a result. But many people also cross because they have relatives, property, or jobs on different sides of the conflict. Right to Protection said the stranded people had various reasons for needing to cross, from reunification with relatives to returning home after receiving medical treatment.

The ongoing plight of people crossing the line of contact underscores the human rights risks posed by government implementation of mandatory apps in response to Covid-19, particularly when non-digital alternatives are not made available, Human Rights Watch said.

Once a person downloads the “Act at Home” app, they have 24 hours to reach their stated address before activating the app, which begins the 14-day self-isolation period at that address. During that period, they receive prompts at random times, and must respond within 15 minutes with a selfie, which will be verified along with the location where the photo was taken. If they do not respond within 15 minutes, they receive several warning messages, and if they fail to respond, a police officer may come, and they may face administrative or even criminal charges if they are not found at home. As of June 15, 40,000 Ukrainians had downloaded the app.

The collection, processing and retention of mobile location data can reveal insights into a person’s movements and associations in ways that interfere with the right to privacy, Human Rights watch said. The use of such apps is significantly complicated by the fact that not everyone has digital literacy, or access to smartphones that meet minimum technical specifications and a reliable mobile or internet connection. According to one 2019 survey, only 55 percent of Ukrainians have a smartphone.

Right to Protection said that many people at the checkpoints struggled to download the app, particularly given poor connectivity at the checkpoints. The group said that in one case, a man who activated the app too early, at the checkpoint itself, rather than his home address, was told he could not leave. Because the app is tied to a person’s SIM card, he was forced to buy another SIM card to download the app again.

Enforcing use of this app without alternatives will have a disproportionately negative affect on marginalized groups, and particularly older people, who are less likely to use specialized apps or smartphones, Human Rights Watch said. This is particularly disconcerting given that so many of the people who cross the contact line in eastern Ukraine are older, and already suffer health consequences as a result of these arduous journeys.

The “Act at Home” app is intended to protect public health at a time of emergency. But the government should halt its mandatory use until it has demonstrated that the app is necessary and proportionate to combat the spread of the disease, and has enacted adequate safeguards to prevent human rights abuses like those on the line of contact. People, particularly vulnerable and marginalized populations, should not face any official sanction or disadvantage as a result of their inability to use it.

“Ukraine should immediately let the dozens of people stranded at the line of contact pass through to government-controlled areas,” Mills said. “It should lift requirements for people to download the app and find non-digital alternatives to protect people from Covid-19.”

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