Internally displaced persons in Ukraine: life is a challenge

by Alessandro Mazzilli

Ukrainian internally displaced persons waiting in front of a hostel run by pro-Russian forces in Donetsk, August 2014. Photo: Bulent Kilic/AFP/Getty Images

Following the political turmoil in late 2013 and the Russian unilateral annexation of Crimea in February-March 2014, pro-Russia protests in eastern Ukraine turned into war. Since April 2014, a low-intensity conflict between governmental forces and separatist groups has shattered lives in the Donbass region. Despite diplomatic efforts that led to the creation of the Minsk II agreements in early 2015, the agreed-upon ceasefire has been constantly violated.

Aside from the loss of human lives and destruction, people fleeing their own country is commonly considered one of the main consequences of an armed conflict. However, less is usually said about those people who do not cross the national borders: the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs). “In armed conflict, displacement is frequently caused by violations of international humanitarian law […] or fundamental human rights”1 such as the rights to life, liberty and security of person. The Ukrainian conflict makes no exception: according to the Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy, there were around 1.4 million IDPs in the country as of August 20152. The United Nation Refugee Agency estimated that the number of IDPs reached 1.8 million in 20163.

As defined by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, IDPs are “persons or groups of persons who have been forced or obliged to flee or to leave their homes or places of habitual residence, in particular as a result of or in order to avoid the effects of armed conflict, situations of generalized violence, violations of human rights or natural or human-made disasters, and who have not crossed an internationally recognized State border”4.

The Guiding Principles consists of 30 rights that IDPs are entitled to and that authorities at various levels should protect until conditions for a durable solution are met, meaning that “internally displaced persons no longer have any specific assistance and protection needs that are linked to their displacement and can enjoy their human rights without discrimination on account of their displacement”5. That could happen through reintegration in their place of origin, in the place of displacement, or through resettlement in another part of the country. Referring to relevant provisions included in the Guiding Principles, this article aims to provide an overview of the situation of IDPs in Ukraine regarding three main issues that affect their lives: freedom of movement, access to housing and employment. “The ability to move freely and in safety within one’s country is a basic right as well as a pre-condition for the enjoyment of many other rights”6. In fact, “limitations on freedom of movement can have serious consequences for the lives, health and well-being of individuals and communities”7. Shelters and temporary accommodations are essential since the very first phase of displacement; in the long-run, however, permanent solutions are necessary to ensure a stable situation, especially if people decide not to return to their place of origin. Finally, not only does employment represent the best means to provide livelihoods, but it is also a fundamental element to boost and foster integration of IDPs within their host communities.

Freedom of movement

The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement state that “every internally displaced person has the right to liberty of movement and freedom to choose his or her residence”8.

Since January 2015, movement across the contact line that separates government controlled areas (GCAs) from non-government controlled areas (NCGAs) has been regulated by State Security Service Order no. 27 On the Approval of Temporary Procedures for controlling movements of persons, vehicles and goods along the conflict line within Donetsk and Luhansk regions (or simply Temporary Order). This order essentially created seven government-controlled checkpoints placed on seven specific corridors where crossing is allowed, requiring persons and transport vehicles to hold a special permit. Far from just regulating crossings over the contact line, however, the Temporary Order has restricted people’s freedom of movement. At first, in fact, permits were issued only under specific circumstances, for example in case of visits of relatives or family members, or to reach personal properties.

Since then, some amendments to the Temporary Order have been approved. For example, international humanitarian organizations can move from GCAs to NCGAs more easily than they used to as they now benefit from a simplified and quicker verification procedure, permits are no longer subject to expiration and people living near the contact line on the government controlled side do not need a permit at all. However, causes of concerns remain. To start with, there is a disparity of treatment between people living in GCAs and NCGAs, public transportation is not allowed or severely limited and people can still be prevented from accessing GCAs if they fail to prove their purpose of entry. As of September 2016, only five checkpoints were open; with almost 25,000 crossings on a daily basis, checkpoints have been rightfully described as “fortified choke points”9. Civilians might have to wait in queue for several hours, during the day as well as at night, with limited access to basic services, such as drinking water, toilets, shelters and medical care. Checkpoints are often – even discretionally – closed. Episodes of corruption have also been reported. People’s safety is at stake: first, they might be caught up in fighting between governmental forces and separatists groups; second, trying to cross the contact line in places other than checkpoints is extremely dangerous as fields are often mined and covered with unexploded ordinances.

Although measures contained in the Temporary Order concern civilians in general, they “have [particularly] affected freedom of movement of IDPs from Donbas who resettled throughout Ukraine and occasionally take short trips to their places of origin to assess the security situation, check on their property, help relatives or to collect their belongings”10. As a result, they also “affected family unity by limiting interactions between relatives living on different sides of the contact line, making reconciliation and safe and voluntary return more difficult”11.

Access to housing

As stated in the Guiding Principles, IDPs are entitled to “an adequate standard of living”12 meaning that, among other things, they have the right to be helped by authorities in finding either shelters or more standard and stable residential solutions.

When it comes to finding a new accommodation, IDPs have basically two options: private apartments or collective centres. This is, of course, a very simple way to put it and many variables play a role here (for example personal properties, economic resources or friends and family members in other regions of Ukraine). An informational gap became quickly an issue: in late June 2014 Ukrainian authorities launched a website aiming at helping people in finding suitable solutions, but many IPDs reached their destination before the website was active relying on different methods such as “social network (either web-based or personal), NGOs – non-governmental organizations – or through regional departments of social protection”13.

Understandingly enough, providing some form of assistance and financial support to IDPs was easier at the beginning of the crisis. This was especially true for collective centres (e.g. camps, dormitories and hotels) provided by local authorities and private owners (NGOs included). In late 2016, however, “most of the areas in the east, where there is a high concentration of IDPs, have exhausted their emergency accommodation absorption capacity”14. Since security conditions in conflict-affected areas offer no guarantees for IDPs to return, protracted displacement is a problematic element at local, regional and even at national level: resources are not easily available and with fewer resources come poorer living conditions. Moreover, even though the government started supporting people to cover livelihoods, “regulations governing the provision of social housing and housing for temporary use do not guarantee obtaining of social housing for the most socially vulnerable categories of IDPs and IDPs in difficult situation”15 such as elderly people, single mothers or people with disabilities.

As internally displaced persons strive to find suitable accommodations, relations with host communities might get complicated. Both parties find themselves in a static situation that shows no sign of potential improvement and, in some cases, a positive attitude toward IDPs has turned into general mistrust, ill-concealed intolerance and discrimination resulting in forced evictions, reluctance to rent to IDPs or in renting at inflated prices. In Kyiv, for example, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights “observed negative implications for the security of tenure and adequate living standards due to attempts by owners to evict IDPs, as well as the local authorities’ inability to offer IDPs adequate housing opportunities”16.


The Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement state that IDPs shall not be discriminated in “the right to seek freely opportunities for employment and to participate in economic activities”17.

Even though data on unemployment rates are conflicting (in 2015, for example, the International Organization for Migration and International Labour Organization estimated it at 21%18 and 34%19 respectively), being able to find a job is a crucial element in IDPs’ lives.

Interestingly, according to a recent survey, chances of finding employment increase together with the geographical distance from the contact line: a series of telephone interviews showed an employment rate of 16% among IDPs living in eastern Kharkiv or Dnipropetrovsk Oblasts, while it reaches 45% in western Ukraine (e.g. in Volyn Oblast)20. As one can imagine, a secure income is the key to access medical care, pay rents and utilities or even to provide help to relatives still living in conflict-affected areas. The above mentioned data perfectly mirror a non-uniform reality. The place of displacement, for example, can easily affect IDPs’ chances to find a job: in general, big cities might offer greater opportunities but, “IDPs, particularly those who moved recently and live in areas with high concentration of IDPs, are much more affected by unemployment”21. At the same time, living in small villages in the countryside does not offer better chances. Moreover, lack of public transportation can be crucial in preventing people from commuting. Skills mismatch is another relevant problem, often combined with challenges related to the place of displacement: given the differences in Ukrainian local and regional economies, for example, “numerous IDPs from Donbas who worked in heavy industry or the mining sector in their places of origin relocated to agricultural areas, which require different skills”22.

Unemployment affects relations between newcomers and host communities. Both strive to find jobs and discrimination and stigmatization are two of the most dangerous consequences: according to a recent study, “the opinion that IDPs require higher wages, and that they are unreliable are widespread in local communities”23. The lack of trust toward internally displaced persons is perfectly simplified by the words of an employer who stated: “I do not hire displaced persons at my construction site – I have had experience. They come demanding higher salaries, but themselves, they do not have any skills, they are not disciplined, and they disappear after the first preliminary payment – and that would be the last that would ever be seen”24.


This article focused on three elements (freedom of movement, access to housing and employment) that are critical issues in many IDPs’ lives. “Displacement led to separation in many families as personal, communication, social and cultural ties were cut”25. Being able to move freely is essential for IDPs, as it allows them to keep even the slightest bond with their place of origin, to keep in touch with friends and family members, or to check on their personal properties on the other side of the contact line. Jobs and decent accommodations are basic ingredients that every integration process requires, especially in case of prolonged displacement, as they represent the best and probably the only way for IDPs to become fully active and accepted members of their host communities.

It should be noted, though, that there are other problematic areas that require urgent attention. In October 2014, Ukraine passed a law on internal displacement (The Law on Ensuring the Rights and Freedoms of Internally Displaced Persons or simply IDP Law) that, upholding to those core international standards set out in the United Nations Guiding Principles, aimed at providing a comprehensive legal framework to help those in need through “an anti-discrimination provision, a guarantee of assistance for voluntary returns and access to social and economic services including residence registration, employment and healthcare”26. However, the implementation of the IDP Law has not produced the expected outcome so far and IDPs have been facing widespread obstacles, especially in obtaining social pensions, accessing education and healthcare and in exercising their political rights.


[1] International Committee of the Red Cross – ICRC, Internal displacement in armed conflict. Facing up to the challenges, November 2009

[2] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre – IDMC, Ukraine IDP Figures Analysis 

[3] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR

[4] UN Commission on Human Rights, Report of the Representative of the Secretary General, Mr. Francis M. Deng, submitted pursuant to Commission resolution 1997/39. Addendum: Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, 11 February 1998, E/CN.4/1998/53/Add.2

[5] The Brookings Institution, University of Bern – Project on Internal Displacement, IASC Framework on Durable Solutions for Internally Displaced Persons, April 2010

[6] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR, Handbook for the Protection of Internally Displaced Persons

[7] Ibid.

[8] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Principle 14.1 (URL in endnote no. 4)

[9] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – OSCE, Annual Report 2016

[10] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – OSCE, Thematic Report, Conflict-related Displacement in Ukraine: Increased Vulnerabilities of Affected Populations and Triggers of Tension within Communities, July 2016

[11] Ibid.

[12] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Principle 18.1 (URL in endnote no. 4)

[13] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – OSCE, Thematic Report. Internal Displacement in Ukraine, 12 August 2014

[14] United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees – UNHCR, Key Protection Concerns and UNHCR Recommendations. UKRAINE – September 2016, September 2016

[15] Current state of the rights and freedoms of internally displaced persons in Ukraine, Stakeholders’ Report, 2017

[16] Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights – OHCHR, Report on the human rights situation in Ukraine 16 February to 15 May 2017, 2017

[17] Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement, Principle 22.1 (b) (URL in endnote no. 4)

[18] International Organization for Migration – IOM; IOM Ukraine 2017 Crisis Response Plan

[19] International Labour Organization – ILO, Employment needs assessment and employability of internally displaced persons in Ukraine : summary of survey findings and recommendations, 2016

[20] International Organization for Migration –  IOM,  National Monitoring System Report. On The Situation Of Internally Displaced Persons, April 2017

[21] International Labour Organization – ILO, 2016 (URL in endnote no. 19)

[22] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – OSCE, July 2016 (URL in endnote no. 10)

[23] Eugenia Andreyuk, Relationship between host communities and internally displaced persons in Ukraine, CrimeaSOS, 2015

[24] Ibid.

[25] Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe – OSCE, July 2016 (URL in endnote n. 10)

[26] Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre – IDMC, Ukraine: Translating IDPs’ protection into legislative action, 19 December 2016


Alessandro Mazzilli
Graduate in International Sciences with a focus on European Studies. In-depth academic specialization in Homeland Security. Deeply interested in security-related issues and transnational challenges (migration and terrorism in particular).

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