Forgotten people from a forgotten war
In 2014, Russian-backed separatist movements seized control of parts of eastern Ukraine. They formed the autonomous regions now known as the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) and Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR), and are effectively still at war with Ukraine.
Ukraine has long suffered at the hands of Russia – whether by colonization, occupation or through military intervention. As a result, after independence the government introduced policies to counter Russia’s political and cultural influence. This has meant that Russian-speaking populations of the east are looked upon with suspicion when it comes to questions of state allegiance. Those who happened to live in what is now the Russian-backed territory of Donetsk were, until 2014, for all intents and purposes Ukrainian citizens, including many vulnerable people reliant on the state.
NGOs are saying this is leading to a human rights crisis for such people – both those who have left the occupied territories and those who have stayed behind – especially those seeking to collect crucial pension payments.
At the end of November the conflict heated up again with the seizure of Ukrainian naval vessels by Russian border patrols in the Sea of Azov.
The ships were headed to Mariupol, an industrial city that sits at the tip of the DPR border, just 15 miles away from what the Ukrainian government has called ‘a terrorist state’. It has probably seen the most drastic changes since the beginning of the war out of any Ukrainian city: it was nearly captured by separatist forces in June 2014 and attacked several times in 2015. The most notable change, however, has been the massive growth in refugees fleeing separatist-controlled DPR and LPR.
In this seaport town, almost every second person one speaks to appears to be internally displaced – from Donetsk, Horlivka, Makiivka. But what about their daily lives?
Resettlement status comes with many problems in Ukraine. At a meeting at Mariupol’s main social centre, internally displaced people (IDPs) vent about their frustration in accessing basic services – pensions, child benefit, disability benefit, obtaining a passport, registering at an address. Documents issued in the DPR are not recognized by the Ukrainian government. Any evidence of having performed paid work in the DPR results in the Ukrainian government refusing to pay pensions, as a former Red Cross worker at the meeting discovered.
Even reputable NGO workers within the DPR are still seen as ‘collaborators’ with a rebel state.
Second class citizens
Tanya, a pensioner from Shyrokyne (a village heavily bombarded in attacks last year) who suffers from epilepsy, told me how, due to problems with gathering witnesses to register her address, she has not received her pension or disability benefit for several months. Unable to heat her house, she took to street-sweeping and sought out donations from the social centre (which predominantly receives international, rather than domestic, funding) in order to buy food and pay for heating. The extra work and stress has only made her epilepsy worse. ‘I feel like a second-class citizen!’ she said.
‘How is one supposed to feel under this government? Like we’re no use to anyone,’ Tanya commented at the meeting.
A group of lawyers and analysts working for Pravo Na Zakhist (Right to Protection), a European-funded NGO, were present to give legal advice to IDPs. The majority of the team were formerly displaced people themselves and feel strongly about the disappearing social safety net for the 1.8 million people living in the DPR and the unknown number of refugees in Ukraine.
When the war first broke out in 2014, Ukrainian banks closed in the DPR, and those based in the autonomous zone had to cross the border to collect their Ukrainian state pensions. The following year, the government stipulated that people should not only provide registration of IDP status and address, but come every 60 days to collect their pensions, otherwise they would be written off.
In effect, this meant queuing for up to five days at the pensions office in Mariupol. Penniless grandmothers, stand waiting for days without money or a place to board for the night, sleeping in abandoned train carriages.
Numerous deaths of elderly and infirm people have been reported during border crossings, where they can wait up to 12 hours in freezing temperatures. Pravo Na Zakhist recorded that a pensioner died in January 2018 when a shell hit his bus as he was preparing to enter Kyiv’s section of Donetsk region. Earlier, in December 2016, a man died after being hit by gunfire at the Kyiv-controlled Maiorsk checkpoint in Donetsk. Cases like this exhibit how Ukraine’s most vulnerable are bearing the brunt of a proxy war between Russia and Ukraine. Unable to survive on their incomes in the occupied territories but similarly unable to permanently move out of them, people are regularly risking their lives.
To add insult to injury, the price of transport through the crossing, such as at the border at Novotroitske, is usually 500-600uah ($21) each way. Pensions in Ukraine average between $60-90 a month, so many cannot afford to cross the border. Instead, they make do with substitute pensions sent from Russia, although, for many, these are not enough to live on.
Two lawyers at Pravo Na Zakhist told me that they see this as an exploitative money-making scheme. Over 100,000 pensioners never re-registered their bank account to claim their pensions in Ukraine; this is a huge sum of money saved by the state each month.
The team say the current handling of pension funds amounts to corruption, with officials told to slow the process or deny applications by any means possible, even being paid bonuses for doing so.
Refusing to pay out pensions is illegal; this September the Ukrainian Supreme Court obliged Kyiv to restore payments to thousands of citizens. However, parliament blocked a bill which would have allowed displaced people to access their pensions. Pravo Na Zakhist have won over 300 court cases for IDPs claiming money back, but this small team of a dozen people funded by foreign aid cannot cope with the sheer numbers of people turning to them for help. The UN refugee agency reported that nearly 50,000 consultations were provided to displaced people from January to August this year.
What can Kyiv do? Not a lot, President Poroshenko’s government insists. Bankrupted by the war and debilitated by endemic corruption at all levels of the state, help for IDPs seems to be low on the agenda for parliament.
Any attempt to accommodate and reintegrate IDPs would undoubtedly face a strong reaction from many Ukrainians, especially those from the West, whose wages are the lowest in the country and who have missed out on foreign aid since the outbreak out the war.
Some believe money is the chief reason why parliament blocked the paying of pensions to IDPs. Yet an equally compelling reason could be the belief that they should not prioritize a population ‘whose economic productivity and patriotism they consider questionable’.
Pravo Na Zakhist’s lawyers propose simple, workable solutions: allowing pensioners to collect payments once every six months instead of every two; installing a bank at the border crossing instead of in cities; removing the need to officially register oneself as an IDP, which they see as discrimination..
But for now they are pipe dreams. Though internationally not recognized, the DPR-Ukraine border has bred corrupt practice on an industrial scale on both sides – through non-payment of pensions, illicit trade between the two territories, and through confiscations at the border. The parties involved are in no hurry to end the conflict.
‘You should not discriminate against your own citizens,’ says one lawyer. ‘Every UN organization says this. All international and Ukrainian NGOs are saying this. Yet still, here we are.’
The names of Pravo Na Zakhist’s team members interviewed by the author have been omitted for their protection.