(Kyiv) – Excessive, confusing, and arbitrary restrictions on movement, imposed in parts of eastern Ukraine by Russia-backed armed groups in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, fail to properly accommodate humanitarian imperatives and put an undue burden on civilians, Human Rights Watch said today. In many cases these restrictions block access to health care, basic income needed to survive, and essential family visits among people who have grown increasingly impoverished and socially vulnerable due to the protracted armed conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Restrictions differ in the two nongovernment-controlled areas in Luhanska and Donetska regions and are discussed in more detail below.
Armed groups in the self-proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR) ban people with local permanent residency from leaving and allow entry for only those pre-approved on humanitarian grounds. Pre-approval is complicated and can take weeks. Local permanent residents can apply on a case-by-case basis for exceptions to leave on limited humanitarian grounds, but why and how these exceptions are granted is unclear and at times appears arbitrary. Additionally, people who leave “DNR” must promise in writing not to return until the pandemic is over.
“Movement restrictions can be a legitimate tool to protect public health, but they shouldn’t keep people from getting medical treatment or their pensions,” said Yulia Gorbunova, senior Europe and Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The self-proclaimed ‘republics’ in eastern Ukraine are preventing people from essential travel instead of ensuring appropriate exemptions are available and work in practice.”
Human Rights Watch interviewed 16 people who live in Donetska and Luhanska regions who reported either difficulties obtaining permission to cross the line of contact or said that the regulations were so unclear that they didn’t even attempt to cross. Several people said that they applied for special permission to leave the nongovernment-controlled area of the Donetska region but never received a response. One person was approved on humanitarian grounds. Ten people said that they had no choice but to travel through Russia to get to government-controlled areas of Ukraine. One person reported verbal and physical abuse and threats at a crossing point in the nongovernment-controlled area in the Luhanska region.
Entry-exit crossing points for civilians to cross the 427-kilometer “line of contact,” which separates nongovernment-controlled areas of eastern Ukraine from government-controlled areas, were shut down in March 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. Before the shutdown, there were over a million crossings each month, with people traveling mainly to get their pensions, see family, or to access health care. The Ukrainian government and armed groups started easing restrictions in May but reimposed them in October in response to an increase in Covid-19 cases.
The Stanytsia Luhanska crossing point, the only one currently operating in Luhanska region, was shut down on October 15 and reopened in early November. When it closed suddenly, about 80 people were stranded on the government-controlled side until the end of October, according to humanitarian groups. Many were older people returning after collecting their pensions or getting medical treatment.
As of November 13, only one entry-exit checkpoint in Donetska region allows crossings for civilians twice a week, on Mondays and Fridays, and the crossing point in Luhanska region is open daily. Two additional checkpoints for Luhanska region, in Zolote and Schastia, opened on November 10 but only on the government-controlled side.
The harsh restrictions, coupled with unclarity as to how exemptions are sought and granted, have had a particularly punitive impact on people seeking to reunite with family, act as caregivers for family members, access their pensions and social benefits, or access urgently needed health care.
For example, a 61-year-old man from Donetsk was diagnosed in mid-October with pneumonia. The doctor who examined him warned his family that his condition was critical, and he should urgently start a medication that was not available in “DNR.” Because of the restrictions imposed by the de facto authorities, the family could not travel to the nearest government-controlled town to buy the medication. Instead, they had to pay someone to deliver medicines from Russia, which doubled the cost and more than doubled the amount of time it took for him to receive the medication.
To avoid the challenging and confusing travel restrictions, people who need to travel from nongovernment-controlled to government-controlled areas of Ukraine increasingly opt to travel through Russia. However, the journey is long and prohibitively expensive to some, costing between 2,000 to 4,000 hryvnas (approximately US$70-140). Such crossings violate Ukrainian law and are punishable by a fine.
Although freedom of movement is not absolute and can be restricted, including in the interest of public health, all restrictions should be necessary and proportionate. The authorities and entities in charge of regulating crossing between government-controlled and nongovernment-controlled territories should ensure that restrictions don’t exceed public health needs, taking into account other less intrusive measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. Those in charge also should make sure restrictions, and their exceptions, are clear and accessible and are not applied arbitrarily. The authorities and entities in charge should not impose strict blanket restrictions that can have a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations and fail to take into consideration individual circumstances and rights. Instead, they should ensure there is a process for exceptions on humanitarian grounds that gives due weight to the rights of the individual seeking to cross and provides clarity and legal certainty.
All actors should ensure that people with humanitarian needs are able to cross the line of contact and that criteria and procedures for crossing are transparent, clear, and consistent. “DNR” de facto authorities should immediately drop excessive restrictions, including the rule banning people with local residence permits from leaving the territory.
“Civilians in eastern Ukraine have been through a lot in the last six years, and do not need avoidable extra hardship,” Gorbunova said. “All parties need to ensure that their measures to protect public health during the pandemic are not so rigid or arbitrary that they violate people’s rights to health or their livelihood.”
For details on restrictions and accounts from those adversely affected, please see below.
Travel Restrictions in the Self-Proclaimed “Donetsk People’s Republic” (DNR)
The “DNR” prohibits people without permanent residency in government-controlled areas from leaving unless they apply for and are granted an exemption for a reason such as medical treatment or family reunification. In practice however, approvals are “extremely rare,” a senior staff member of a humanitarian group operating in Donetsk told Human Rights Watch in a phone interview.
People who wish to enter “DNR” and can show they have permanent residency there are allowed to do so only if they have been pre-approved on humanitarian grounds. On arrival, there is an option of taking an express Covid-19 test at the checkpoint. However, even if the test is negative everyone arriving is required to complete a two-week self-isolation period. One man who arrived in “DNR” on October 16 told Human Rights Watch that tests cost 1,750 rubles (approximately $21), which he could not afford, and which is prohibitive for many people. Those who do not take the test or test positive are quarantined in a medical facility for two weeks.
Most people seeking to travel to or from nongovernment-controlled areas of Donetska region said that they did not know how to get pre-approval to cross or whom to ask for assistance. Experts with Right to Protection, a Ukrainian human rights group that works with the internally displaced and monitors conditions on crossing points on the government-controlled side, told Human Rights Watch that people frequently don’t know whether they have been included in pre-approved lists until they get to a crossing point.
One woman from Donetsk summed it up:
It is so complicated that it can drive you crazy. If you have a local [residence permit], you can’t leave. If you have the permit on the other side, you can leave but you can’t come back. My parents are both old and need medicine that is not available here, not to mention they haven’t been getting their pensions since February. And what are we supposed to do?
Travel Restrictions in the Self-Proclaimed “Luhansk People’s Republic” (LNR)
In Luhanska region, people can cross to government-controlled areas without restrictions, but only those who have permanent residency in “LNR” are allowed to return to, or enter, the nongovernment-controlled area. People crossing into “LNR” must self-isolate for two weeks. In October, armed groups in control of the area introduced a new rule limiting crossings for people with permanent residence to once a month, but later adjusted it to allow more crossings if relevant health entities grant permission.
Movement between the two nongovernment-controlled areas has also been restricted, with the exception of people who are traveling to their place of permanent residence.
Accounts of Those Affected by the “DNR” Restrictions
In September, “Elena,” who is 82, needed to travel to government-controlled territory for her daughter-in-law’s funeral. Because of the travel restrictions, she had to travel through Russia, an arduous journey that took more than 24 hours and cost 1,300 hryvnas (approximately $45). “We had no idea how it works, nobody really knows,” her son said in the phone interview when asked if she had applied for an exemption. “Someone told her that she should go to the military commander and beg for permission to travel but that it could take weeks.”
“Why does she have to go through such difficulties just to see family and attend a family funeral?” he said.
At the Russia-Ukraine border, Ukrainian border guards fined Elena, whose monthly pension is 2,600 hryvnas ($90), 1,700 hryvnias ($60) for violating the crossing rules, Elena’s lawyer said. The lawyer said that this has been a common practice since the restrictions were introduced and is particularly problematic for older people, who often live on small pensions and are not able to pay the fines. The fines can vary from 1,700 to 5100 hryvnias ($60-180).
The lawyer said that similar fines have been successfully appealed in Ukrainian courts:
This is basically a trap for people. The border guards threatened that if she doesn’t pay the fine on the spot, they won’t let her cross the border back, which they can’t do, but people don’t know that. They made her pay the fine. It is half of her pension, and the other half she spent on getting there in the first place.
“Alena,” is in her mid-30s and lives in Donetsk. Because she has permanent residence in Donetsk, she has been unable to travel to government-controlled territory since the pandemic-related restrictions were introduced. She is a single mother of a 2-year-old and looks after her 75-year-old mother-in-law, who has diabetes, and her older parents, who also have health issues. She said that the impact of the restrictions on her family has been devastating:
My mother in law can’t get medicine and strips for her [diabetes] testing kit, which the Red Cross provides for her on the government side. I haven’t been getting child support for my son since February. My parents need medicine, they need their pensions. The only way to get all that is to travel for 30 hours through Russia, which is completely impossible in our circumstances.
When asked if she knew about humanitarian exemptions, Alena said that she thought the process was complicated and unclear:
They say you need to be pre-approved to travel. I’ve seen people lining up to Pushilin’s [head of “DNR”] headquarters at all hours. Completely unclear how to get on these lists. They can say you are on the list and then you get to the checkpoint and turns out you are not on the list. I am not going to travel with a 2-year-old only to be turned around at the checkpoint.
“Andrii,” 17, was refused entry to “LNR” to visit his grandmother who was ill. At the checkpoint, he presented his ID which showed Luhansk as his place of birth, but the men at the checkpoint held him for over an hour and then refused to let him through. They mocked his long hair, called him a Nazi, forced him to take off his shirt looking for tattoos, verbally abused him, and repeatedly threatened him with violence.
After Andrii walked back to the Ukraine government checkpoint he was required to self-isolate at his parents’ house for two weeks although he had not entered the nongovernment-controlled area.
Anastasiia, Donetska region
“Anastasiia” lives in a government-controlled area of the Donetska region. In August, her mother, who lives in “DNR,” became ill after sustaining a fall and needed to be transported to government-controlled territory for treatment. Anastasia applied to the de facto authorities to transport her mother to a government-controlled city. Two weeks later, she was permitted to enter and underwent mandatory self-isolation for two weeks. Then she applied to leave “DNR” with her mother. The initial permission took five days but had to be amended because her mother needed to be transported by ambulance, which had to be added to the permission. The new permission was issued a month later, on October 29.
In March, “Nikolai” left his home in Makiivka to get his pension and was stranded in government-controlled territory for several months after checkpoints were shut down. He returned to “DNR” in August and cannot leave again because he has no residence permit on the government-controlled side. To get his pension and address some work-related issues, he can now only travel through Russia, which costs him 3,500 hryvnas (approximately $120). His wife has a residence permit in a government-controlled city, but she can leave only if she signs a document declaring that she will not return until the Covid-19 situation improves, as required by “DNR” authorities.
Nikolai’s financial situation is dire, he said, and he sees no prospects in the future. “I would like to sell my apartment here and move to the [government-controlled] side. But because of the conflict my apartment here is now worth a third of what it used to be, and I won’t be able to buy anything with that money. All I can do now is pay money to ride back and forth through Russia in order to support myself.”
“Tamara” lives with her 11-year old son and her 67-year-old mother. She said that before the pandemic, she regularly traveled to Kyiv for work, but had to stop traveling due to the restrictions. “If I am not making money, we have nothing.… I was getting child support [from “DNR”] and we had our vegetable garden to sustain us, that’s it.” On October 2, Tamara traveled to the government-controlled side through Russia. She said she didn’t know how to get humanitarian exemptions but heard that people have to wait for a long time and are rejected frequently, so she didn’t want to try. Tamara said she was not planning to return to Debaltseve until she made some money. She is currently working as a seamstress.
Impact of Closing the Stanytsia Luhanska Crossing Point on October 15
The Ukrainian government permits people to cross to government-controlled territory if they abide by 14-day self-isolation requirements. They are required to install the “Act at Home” app, which monitors quarantine compliance. There have been reports of the app malfunctioning, which can mean people were stuck at the line of contact or forced to quarantine at a medical facility for two weeks instead.
Human Rights Watch documented that the app and the self-isolation rules have prevented many older people who live in nongovernment-controlled territory from getting their pensions in government-controlled Ukraine because they could not afford to self-isolate on government-controlled territory or did not own a smartphone. There are no quarantine or self-isolation requirements in Ukraine for those crossing into Ukraine from Russia.
After the Stanytsia Luhanska crossing point was closed again on October 15, Ukrainian officials did allow some people to cross on humanitarian grounds, however Human Rights Watch also documented cases in which people were refused permission to cross, despite strong humanitarian circumstances. The apparently arbitrary decision-making causes unnecessary hardship. Ukrainian authorities should ensure that there is a clear and consistent process to apply for humanitarian exceptions that gives due weight to the impact the suspension has on their rights and prevents undue burdens for vulnerable people.
“Nikolai,” in his 60s, permanently lives in Belovodsk in “LNR.” He is the only guardian of his 9-year-old grandson, whose mother was killed in a car accident. On October 12, Nikolai traveled to Kyiv to attend a court hearing relating to the accident. When he returned to the crossing point on October 15, it was shut down. Ukrainian officials at the crossing point repeatedly rejected his requests to cross, he said, despite the fact that he had left his 9-year-old grandson at home and needed to get back to him. He also filed two official requests asking permission to cross from the Ukrainian authorities, but both were denied. He was stranded at the crossing point for 11 days before he was finally allowed to cross on October 25.
“Tatiana,” who has a disability, was traveling to nongovernment-controlled territory after her son, who is blind, had eye surgery in Kyiv. She and her son arrived at the closed Stanytsia Luhanska crossing point on October 23. She said they were not allowed to cross and didn’t have money for lodging so they had to spend the night at a distant relatives’ house several kilometers away. They were allowed to cross the next day, after humanitarian groups intervened on her behalf.