Ukraine’s rapidly growing IDP problem

Some 473,000 Ukrainians have been displaced as fighting continues – nearly double from two months ago, UN says.

Widow Renata Proshunina takes care of her son, Emin, at the Katerina Hotel [John Wendle/Al Jazeera]

Lviv, Ukraine – Renata Proshunina sits on the edge of the bed in her small hotel room, nursing her four-month-old son, Emin. Her two-year-old son Dmitry sleeps on a couch nearby. Childrens clothes dry in the bathroom and packets of wet wipes and bottles of medicine are scattered about. The room feels lived in – and it has been.

Since mid-August, Proshunina has been staying here in the Katerina, a small truck stop motel on the southern edge of Lviv, in western Ukraine that now houses about 55 people displaced by fighting in Ukraine’s east. But this is only her most recent stop after they fled.

In her struggles Proshunina has become one of nearly 473,000 Ukrainians who have been dispersed across the country as internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to numbers released on Friday by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This is up from 275,000 just two months ago.

In June, Proshunina fled fighting in her small village in Luhansk province, one of two separatist regions in Ukraine’s east.

I don't have time to cry, I have to take care of my two kids. The government must help me, but I have no hope that they will.

by - Renata Proshunina, displaced war widow

“There was a lot of shooting in the village, then Russian troops came in. Then we fled to another village. We spent a night there and the next day they started shooting rockets and shells,” says Proshunina, 31. She and many others fled by bus to the capital Kiev.

No time to cry

Bouncing between the apartments of family and friends, Emin was born in Kiev on July 21. He never met his father. Proshunina’s husband, Sergey, a Ukrainian national guardsman, was killed in the massacre at Ilovaisk at the end of August.

His parents, who live in Russia and are pro-Russian, blame her for his death. They will not give her his documents, and so she cannot collect compensation from the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence. Her documents were accidentally left behind when she fled the fighting. Without her passport, she says, she has not been able to register for social services support for Dmitry and Emin.

“I don’t have time to cry, I have to take care of my two kids,” she says, continuing to nurse Emin, who has clubfoot in both legs and requires casts now and will need special shoes for years to come.

“The government must help me, but I have no hope that they will.”

Right now she is getting by on instant noodles, free food for her children, and the room at the Katerina provided to the IDPs by the owner, a local businessman. Some 300 to 400 displaced people have already passed through its darkened hallways, estimates Oleg Kolyasa, a volunteer with Civil Sector, an umbrella organisation of Ukrainian NGOs.

This is a “typical example”, says Oldrich Andrysek, the UNHCR’s regional representative.

“If the businessman didn’t do this, these people would end up living under a bridge,” he says. “In general, the situation is getting worse in terms of numbers. The winter will complicate matters further.” He says that although the government is under pressure to provide assistance, it has not been able to come through. “The lion’s share of assistance still comes from volunteers and civil society groups,” he says.

Growing animosity 

Indeed, though Proshunina’s may be the most desperate, each room in the Katerina – said to usually cater to prostitutes and truckers heading to nearby Poland – houses a sad story of loss and displacement.

Natalya Yagolovich at the Katerina Hotel [John Wendle]

Down the hall, Natalya Yagolovich shares a room with her two sons. They fled Donetsk when the chemical factory on the edge of the city blew up. “I’ve been afraid for a long time, but now you can’t even go outside,” she says.

Her husband stayed behind to work, and volunteers promised to meet her at the train station when she came to Lviv, a city where her oldest son plans to continue his education in computer programming.

“When we arrived, no one was at the station. I’ve never been here before, and I had no idea where to go.”

They ended up at the Katerina. When she went to the government’s social services office to register for benefits for her youngest – a little more than $25 a month – she was told, “We don’t have to give you anything. Go rent a flat yourself,” she says.

A lieutenant in the state’s prison system, she says she cannot get a job because her work documents are at the headquarters in Donetsk, which has been taken over by rebels. And there are other problems.

“When potential employers figure out that we are IDPs they don’t want to take us on because they know that we will leave at some point. Also, there is the fact that some of the locals have their kids fighting in the east and we are living here, and they have bad feelings towards us,” she says.

Yagolovich’s situation highlights a key problem faced by IDPs. “There may be increasing animosity against those who were forced to flee,” says the UNHCR’s Andrysek. “The social repercussions are endless. We have to help these people get on their own two feet, otherwise they will be perceived as eating from the common pie but not contributing anything back.” 



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There is also the risk that prolonged assistance could lead to dependence and lack of work could lead to marginalisation, he says. In turn, this could cause IDPs to become embittered and return to the war torn east, either living in squalor or possibly arming themselves and fighting against the government.

“It is better to go back there and die than to be here and suffer,” says Yagolovich. “Our future is not clear. We have no choices, and no one from the government is giving us any.”

No budget for IDPs

Undeniably, Kiev has been overwhelmed by the scale of the humanitarian crisis, and has been slow to react. Partially, this is because Ukraine is broke and deeply in debt.

“The question of IDPs is a big issue that will require a lot of financial support, but the government is not hurrying to sign a bill because there is no money in the budget,” says Serhiy Kiral, the head of investment for the Lviv city council.

Even without money though, the government has only just signed its first legislation on internally displaced persons, seven months into the conflict. Now people can register specifically as IDPs, not just through pension or child benefit lists.

“The first important steps were taken only four weeks ago,” laments UNHCR’s Andrysek, adding a new law on IDPs has been signed and should enter into force soon.

But, with almost half a million people displaced by the fighting, the problems Kiev faces are nearly overwhelming. Among a litany of issues, Andrysek says the government has not yet even created a central authority to govern the problem, and that administrative mechanisms are lacking.

“The government was obviously not prepared for such a large wave of internally displaced people,” he says. “It is a problem in the making and it is still growing.” While he acknowledges that the government has taken some steps, he says: “It has a long way to go to solving the underlying key issues, and more are looming.”

The easiest way to solve all of this is if everyone could just go home – the wish voiced again and again by everyone Al Jazeera spoke to. But with fighting continuing in the east and more Russian troops entering the fray, that looks unlikely to happen now or anytime soon.

Sitting in the hotel room with her two boys and the memory of her husband, Proshunina leans over her youngest son, his legs kicking in their casts, and sweetly coos to him. “We will have to do everything ourselves, isn’t that right?”

If the government does not enact legislation soon, she and hundreds of thousands of others may just well have to. 

Follow John Wendle on Twitter: @johnwendle