Half a million displaced in eastern Ukraine as winter looms, warns UN refugee agency

A woman collects aid items at a distribution centre in Nikolayevka, eastern Ukraine. Photo: UNHCR/E. Zivatdinov

5 December 2014 – The fighting in eastern Ukraine this year has internally displaced over half a million people leaving them vulnerable to the harsh winter months ahead, the United Nations Refugee (UNHCR) warned today as aid workers race against the clock to distribute essential cold-weather supplies.

In a Geneva briefing today, UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler said that the fighting has also forced over two hundred thousand Ukrainians to flee to Russia and other neighbouring countries.

Applications for asylum by Ukrainian citizens have also risen in the European Union (EU) this year, Spindler told journalists.

As of the end of October, 8,936 Ukrainians had asked for international protection in the EU, a tenfold increase from the 885 asylum applications for the whole of 2013. The EU country receiving the largest number of Ukrainian asylum seekers so far this year was Poland (1,826) followed by Germany (1,622), France (1,076) and Sweden (840).

“The number of Ukrainians fleeing abroad could be considerable higher than the number of asylum seekers, however, as many Ukrainians prefer to apply for other forms of legal stay such as temporary or permanent residence permits in other countries,” Mr. Spindler said.

So far this year, more than 317,000 Ukrainians have applied for such permits in Russia (222,000), Belarus (60,000), Poland (23,000) and other neighbouring countries.

In Ukraine, most internally displaced people (IDP) remain in regions close to the conflict, including the eastern city of Kharkiv and government-controlled territories in Donetsk and Luhansk as well as in the Zaporizhzhia and Dnipropetrovsk regions.

Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) are children (27 per cent), elderly or disabled people (21 per cent) and women (65 per cent of the adult displaced population).

Meanwhile, Mr. Spindler noted that the Ukraine government last month adopted a resolution which provides for the transfer of state-run institutions and social payments from the regions not currently under government control to government-controlled areas.

“UNHCR is concerned that this provision will have unintended negative effects such as increasing internal displacement, as people are forced to move from areas not controlled by the Ukrainian government in order to receive their pensions and social benefits, while causing serious hardship to those unable or unwilling to leave their homes,” he said.

“Although UNHCR has no first-hand information about conditions in areas not under government control, there are strong indications that the civilian population in these areas is facing considerable hardship. We are seriously concerned about a deepening humanitarian crisis in these areas,” he added.

With the onset of winter, UNHCR continues to work to improve the conditions of some of the most vulnerable displaced people, he said. The Agency is extending its one-time cash assistance programmes for vulnerable IDP families to 11 other regions.

Since needs are greatest near the conflict areas, UNHCR and its partner, People in Need, are planning to repair and make ready for the winter a further 12 collective centres in the northern Donetsk and Kharkiv regions. This brings the total number of premises under different stages of refurbishment to 47.

In Russia, UNHCR undertook monitoring missions in late October to Vladivostok and Khabarovsk in the Russian Far East, and to Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, to observe how Ukrainians were being integrated in these areas.

The majority of the refugees and people with temporary asylum status stay mostly in Temporary Accommodation Centres (TACs) which have been set up in the dormitories of colleges and universities, children's holiday camps and sanatoria.

“While the TACs that the UNHCR teams visited were well equipped for winter conditions and had adequate schooling and medical facilities, UNHCR has received information that reception conditions for other refugees are less satisfactory. Ukrainian refugees also report restrictions to moving to other cities,” Spindler said.


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