Scope of Ukraine's Refugee Crisis Remains Unclear
by Claire Bigg and Levko Stek, RFE/RL June 16, 2014
Lyudmila Denisenko endured weeks of deadly shootouts between Ukrainian forces and pro-Russian insurgents in her home city of Slovyansk, the epicenter of the separatist conflict ravaging eastern Ukraine.
But when a children's hospital was shelled two weeks ago, her patience finally snapped.
She and her family fled for the relative safety of Izyum, a small town 50 kilometers northwest of Slovyansk.
'We came here with nothing,' she recently told RFE/RL in Izyum's City Hall, where she was applying for temporary accommodation and basic supplies. 'We could no longer stay. The children's hospital was bombed, the train station was bombed, the bus station was bombed. We hitchhiked all the way here.'
Like Denisenko, thousands of people have fled eastern Ukraine in recent weeks.
Amid the chaos, however, the scope of the refugee crisis remains unclear.
UNHCR, the United Nations' refugee agency, estimates that there are currently more than 17,500 internally displaced people (IDPs) in Ukraine.
About 11,000 of these are former Crimea residents who fled the peninsula after its annexation by Russia in March. The rest are eastern Ukrainians forced out of their homes by the separatist conflict.
'The majority are women and children, about one third are children,' says Oldrich Andrysek, the agency's representative for Belarus, Moldova, and Ukraine. 'There are relatively few old people, pensioners. They are reluctant to leave their homes even though conditions are very bad.'
The flow of refugees appears to have intensified since the government launched what it calls an 'antiterrorist operation' to root out separatists from eastern Ukraine in mid-April.
Their real number is probably much higher than UNHCR's estimates, which don't include people who turned to nongovernmental groups for help or are waiting out the conflict with relatives.
'Our figure is collated from local authorities after they've been approached for some kind of assistance, it's a very incomplete figure because there is no central register of displaced persons,' says Andrysek. 'It's a rough estimate. The figure could be double, but it's very hard to confirm.'
In addition to IDPs, some of those displaced by the turmoil in Ukraine have sought refuge abroad.
According to UNHCR, more than 440 Ukrainian citizens have applied for asylum in Poland since the beginning of the year. As of June 13, it says, 22 have sought asylum in Belarus and another 19 in Moldova.
Many families are also believed to have fled to neighboring Russia, although the country's souring relations with Ukraine and the West are making it difficult for international agencies like UNHCR to gauge their numbers.
The information war between Moscow and Kyiv has raised yet more uncertainty about the number and whereabouts of Ukrainian refugees in Russia.
State-run television channels in Russia have been broadcasting reports of refugee camps populated by Ukrainian families, and Russia now says it is facing a humanitarian crisis on its border – a claim vehemently rejected by Ukrainian authorities.
A Reuters video showing Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) chief Lamberto Zannier visiting a refugee camp in the Rostov region this week lent some credence to Russia's claims. In the footage, angry evacuees from Slovyansk are seen shouting at Zannier, demanding answers on the Ukrainian government's use of force in their city.
The conflicting figures coming out of Russia, however, have raised eyebrows.
Russian children's ombudsman, Pavel Astakhov, said earlier this month that more than 8,300 Ukrainians had fled to Russia's southern Rostov region in just one day.
'An additional 151 children arrived at the refugee camp that we inspected yesterday,' he wrote on his Instagram account, illustrating his statement with a drawing showing a haggard-looking child standing next to the body of her mother against the backdrop of a burning village.
Rostov authorities were quick to reject this figure.
'Eight thousand three hundred Ukrainians crossed the border over the past 24 hours, but this doesn't mean that all of them are refugees,' said Aleksandr Titov, a spokesman for Rostov regional governor Vadim Artyomov. 'These people could be visiting their relatives; they could have come for a vacation or for other purposes in other regions of Russia.'
Russian Deputy Prime Minister Olga Golodets has since put the number of refugees at just over 2,500, saying the country stood ready to take in another 10,000.
The highest figure so far has come from Denis Pushilin, the parliament speaker of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic, who claimed on June 12 that as many as 15,000 eastern Ukrainians had already fled to Russia.
'People are frightened'
Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, in turn, has put the figure at 4,000 and accused Kyiv of ignoring the refugee crisis.
'People are frightened, scared,' he told a government meeting on June 5. 'At the same time, the Ukrainian government fails to notice a humanitarian problem, says there are no refugees. It's lies and it's sad to hear it.'
UNHCR's Andrysek describes the Ukrainian government's reaction to the refugee crisis so far as 'very unsystematic.'
'One of the problems in Ukraine is that there has been a lot of upheaval in the past few months,' he adds. 'The government has been faced by many concurrent priorities.'
While authorities in Kyiv continue to deny that eastern Ukrainians are massively fleeing to Russia, they are coming around to the urgency of tackling the mounting flow of IDPs.
On June 10, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko ordered the creation of humanitarian corridors so civilians can flee areas worst hit by the conflict.
One day later, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk instructed his government to create a nationwide database of refugees to facilitate relief efforts.
'Everything we've done so far is resettle people for one, two, or three months, mostly refugees from Crimea,' he said. 'In view of the current situation, it's clear that this issue cannot be solved in the short term. We need to adopt a long-term strategy.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|