A Forgotten Crisis: IDPs and the war in Ukraine10 min read
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has led to a devastating refugee crisis, with the latest UN figures suggesting almost 6 million people have fled to neighbouring countries. Huge global efforts have been made to provide financial and social support for refugees leaving Ukraine, most evidently across the border in Poland, where over 4.5 million people have taken refuge. In addition, the EU has granted Ukrainians the right to stay and work within its 27 member states for up to three years. A much-overlooked area, however, is the ever-increasing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) as a result of the war. With an estimated 6.23 million people being forcibly displaced inside Ukraine, it is critical that the needs of IDPs are not forgotten.
Global displacement has seen a drastic increase due to issues of conflict, war and violence. Yet, for Ukraine, this is far from a new phenomenon due to the long history of forced displacement of its citizens. As far back as the eighteenth century, Tatar people, indigenous to Crimea have fought against mass expulsion from their homes. Later, in 1944, Stalin ordered the mass deportation of Crimean Tatars to Central Asia and Siberia. The harsh conditions and lack of sustenance resulted in the deaths of over half of the deported population, either en route or soon after their arrival. Perhaps one of the most well-known occasions of forced displacement is the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster that caused tens of thousands of Ukrainian citizens to be driven out of their homes due to the danger of radiation poisoning.
In 2014, Ukraine yet again saw its population forcibly resettled. Following the Russian annexation of Crimea and subsequent armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, hundreds of thousands were forced to flee their homes. As of 2021, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported nearly 1.5 million registered internally displaced persons in Ukraine. Since the outbreak of the war, much of the media focus has been on the refugee crisis facing not only Ukraine but for Europe as a whole: as the largest refugee crisis Europe has seen since World War II, it certainly warrants this attention. Nevertheless, awareness should also be raised about the specific issues faced by the many millions of internally displaced persons — who currently surpass the total number of refugees as a result of the war.
A Gap in International Policy
IDPs differ from refugees in that they do not leave their country. Instead, IDPs technically stay protected by the government of their home country according to international law. Yet, given many IDPs are displaced due to conflict — as in the case of Ukraine — this poses a significant challenge to local authorities. Many governments struggle to provide the support and protection required from IDPs due to the economic burden they face; other governments may simply be unwilling due to political dimensions. Indeed, these issues are not unique to Ukraine. In fact, difficulties in IDP policy implementation are echoed across the globe. The question, therefore, becomes an international one.
Unlike the case of refugees, there is no specific international convention on the rights of IDPs. This gap is in part due to the legal framework that has dominated citizenship studies to date: in theory, IDPs are entitled to full citizenship status. However, this citizen/non-citizen binary undermines the vulnerabilities experienced by IDPs who remain in a liminal space of citizenship where state protection is uncertain. The lack of concrete policy leads to a unique array of vulnerabilities affecting IDPs, particularly during conflict times when humanitarian assistance is often more difficult to distribute in their home country.
In Ukraine currently, major concerns among IDPs remain grounded in the short-term due to the ongoing nature of the conflict: access to food, livelihoods, and temporary shelter appears to be among the most often cited issues. However, the unfortunate reality is that the consequences of Russia’s war in Ukraine will endure far beyond the short term, requiring both medium- and long-term solutions for the many millions affected.
State policy before the war
In recent years, the state’s IDP integration policy has been deeply criticised for its ineffectiveness. Weaknesses included a lack of specialised structures, poor coordination of government bodies and inefficient management. Superficial, short-term interventions and overly bureaucratic procedures have meant many internally displaced persons have not received adequate assistance, instead facing mass poverty and a severe housing crisis.
Negative perceptions of IDPs as “aid beneficiaries” rather than active citizens have also impacted state-implemented structures. This has transferred into public opinion: recent research shows that different understandings of what it means to be “Ukrainian” have led to the othering of IDPs from the Donbas region, affecting many people’s sense of belonging within their home country.
However, there are signs of improvement in the way of state policy. In 2021, a new IDP Integration Strategy was adopted, which is set to completely restructure the implementation procedures to focus on evidence-based medium-term solutions. Housing, education, employment and social protection are among some of the issues the strategy seeks to tackle.
Strategy for the Integration of Internally Displaced Persons and the Implementation of Medium-Term Decision on Internal Displacement until 2024: The Six Strategic Goals
Strategic Goal 1. Realisation of housing and property rights of internally displaced persons.
Strategic Goal 2. Employment and education of internally displaced persons.
Strategic Goal 3. Realisation of the right to social protection of internally displaced persons.
Strategic Goal 4. Medical care for internally displaced persons.
Strategic Goal 5. Access to documents.
Strategic Goal 6. Creating conditions for the integration of internally displaced persons in the host territorial communities.
Source: Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine
Last year saw Ukrainian authorities make great strides in addressing the needs of IDPs based on the recommendations put forward by external organisations such as International Recommendations on IDP Statistics (IRIS). But as the war broke out in February, this progress is under great threat with the sudden rapid growth in internal displacement. At the same time, it has also become more vital than ever.
Challenges of implementation
Many of the challenges the government faced in realising its six strategic goals have not changed in nature, but rather in scale. For instance, the difficult task of data collection — both actual figures of IDPs as well as their specific needs — has been greatly exacerbated by the war.
Despite this, the Ministry of Digital Transformation has recently introduced the option to register as an internally-displaced person via the Diia app in order to avoid lengthy bureaucratic processes. By registering through the application, internally-displaced persons should be able to access monthly emergency financial support. Projects like this, implemented in collaboration with the UNDP, with financial support from the Swedish government, show great promise in increasing the accessibility of provisions for IDPs.
Another challenge is ensuring housing and property rights, which has long been perhaps the most pressing issue faced by IDPs. While the government has tried to move away from the heavy reliance on temporary housing in recent years, the short-term necessity for this accommodation due to the destruction of so many homes has pushed this process back significantly. Recent interventions include the construction of the so-called “Mariapolis”, the city of Mary — an area of modular houses set up by the Municipality of Lviv in collaboration with Salesian missionaries and financial support from the Polish government. Yet, long-term strategies still remain in question.
The highest IDP populations are currently found in the western Oblasts of Lviv and Zakarpattia, which both report over 300,000 internally-displaced persons within each region; although actual figures may be much higher. Unsurprisingly, this has forced cities such as Lviv into a deep housing crisis, with rent prices soaring in some cases 10 times higher than their rates prior to the war. Time will also tell how local attitudes toward IDPs affect integration strategies, with a recent survey suggesting that 11% of surveyed locals hold negative attitudes towards IDPs in Lviv. According to the same survey, 81% of the surveyed IDPs believe local attitudes towards them are positive or very positive.
Both results suggest that the response in Lviv has been welcoming to displaced persons overall, and it is only a minority of people who are not holding out such open arms. Despite this, pro-Russian Twitter accounts have taken to only show stories of the supposed widespread animosity between Russian-speaking Ukrainians from the east of the country and those from the west, where Ukrainian dominates as the first language. While the treatment of Russian-speaking IDPs should not be dismissed, this narrative fails to recognise the long and difficult fight for the revitalisation of the Ukrainian language after centuries of Russification. Likewise, by only displaying an image of hate between Ukrainians, these sources of propaganda aim to fuel discontent and division among the war-torn populations.
Although the state is the primary guarantor of IDP rights, it is clear that solutions to the IDP crisis cannot be solved by the government alone. Effective policy involves multiple actors, including IDPs themselves. Cross-collaboration with external agencies perhaps holds the key to success, particularly in terms of financial support during this critical time for Ukraine. Cash assistance provided by the UN Refugee Agency is just one of the short-term initiatives, with projects engaging directly with IDPs offering more long-term solutions. It is also worth noting that Ukrainian authorities have received praise for their continued efforts to register IDPs through the Unified IDP Registry swiftly. However, without collaboration with grassroots groups — the real people taking charge of the current response — international organisations are certain to fall short.
Strategies on the ground
Outside of top-down policy comes the vital importance of grassroots initiatives, as the bulk of the response to the current crisis has been driven by the tireless work from bottom-up groups. Various Ukraine-based initiatives have reoriented their activities to focus primarily on the needs of IDPs, such as the “Building Ukraine Together” project as part of the Lviv Education Foundation. Alongside short-term humanitarian interventions, the project also seeks to organise employment options, mentoring schemes and youth engagement programmes for IDPs. Other small-scale initiatives with long-term impacts include the “Spring of Hope” — an NGO with a focus on human trafficking prevention. The NGO has become a vital source of counselling and psychosocial assistance for internally displaced persons and seeks to build systematic assistance in their reintegration and economic adaptation.
Some international organisations have been working on the ground in collaboration with local NGOs to understand the needs of the millions who are currently displaced. The International Organization for Migration (IOM), for example, has been providing mental health and primary healthcare services for IDPs through mobile clinics across the Lviv region. The organisation has been creating short-term housing solutions by rehabilitating unused and damaged buildings in the Zakarpattia region. Perhaps most important is its long-term outlook, as the IOM continues to conduct surveys on the ground with displaced persons to understand the major areas of vulnerability better.
As the war in Ukraine continues to devastate the livelihoods of so many, it is difficult to find optimism about the future. Yet, perhaps there is some hope. The difficulties faced by IDPs in Ukraine are not easily solved: they require both immediate actions and foresight into future challenges. But the tireless work of local grassroots organisations is the bright spot in this dark time. As is often the case, on-the-ground expertise remains paramount to ensuring the needs of IDPs are met. International organisations and policymakers must learn from their efforts if they hope to implement long-lasting solutions.