Ukraine’s hidden tragedy, and what the media will soon forget

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By Dr Irina Kuznetsova, Associate Professor, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences
University of Birmingham

The UK’s defence secretary is warning European countries that ‘a huge number of refugees’ may flee Ukraine if Russia attacks the country. There is definitely a risk, but it is essential to remember that since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the start of the war in Donbas, Ukraine has been facing the most extensive population displacement in its history since the Second World war.

Over 1.5 million people fled to other parts of Ukraine from eastern part of the country and Crimea.* There have been many organizations established in Ukraine to support Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), including those which the IDPs have initiated. For example, between June and December 2014, NGO Station Kharkiv found accommodation for 30,000  IDPs.

However, there are still massive issues in the social integration of IDPs. Elderly IDPs in Ukraine face a deeply frustrating degree of marginalisation. Even receiving a pension (the average pension in Ukraine is about £104 per month) does not solve many problems since this is not enough funds to rent suitable accommodation. The lack of the economic resources for social policy bureaucracy produces multiple forms of social exclusion in Ukraine. The lack of affordable and appropriate housing for IDPs, suspension of pension and benefits and lack of specialised free medical support for those injured during the war all contribute to this.

The disadvantages experienced by IDPs are compounded by compromised mental health conditions. A survey conducted by the University of Birmingham and Ukrainian Catholic University in 2018 revealed that 20.2% of IDPs and 12.2% of the general population have ‘moderately severe or severe’ anxiety, compared to just 4.3% in the UK. The prevalence of depression was 25% of IDPs and 14% of the general population, far above the 4.9% in the UK. Overall, 16% of IDPs and 8% of the general population are considered to be ‘severely anxious and depressed’. It is likely that the loss of family members or being a victim or witness of violence could have long-term consequences for mental health and development in general.

One psychotherapist we interviewed during our project mentioned the high level of exhaustion:

‘I meet so many people with a severe emotional burnout, who come from different spheres – from service providers who help IDPs to IDPs themselves.

All the consequences of prolonged chronic stress become apparent.

And if in 2014-2015 people managed to hang in there somehow – there were many breakdowns, many severe situations that were, however, associated with acute trauma, then in 2016-2017, it is instead a depressive state, bordering on nervous exhaustion.’

Ukrainian civilians are rarely in the news, but we can usually see those who are either shown as ready to fight against Russia’s aggression or those who deny the possibility of attack and try to get on with their lives. In fact, the situation is much more nuanced. The current atmosphere of fear and uncertainty can further affect those whose mental health has already been compromised since 2014.

Currently, 2.9 million people living on both sides of the ‘contact line’ [so-called border between Government and non-Government controlled areas of Ukraine] ‘will require humanitarian assistance and protection to live a life of dignity.’ This figure includes the elderly, people with disabilities, female-headed households, and children living in isolated villages. Last year, Humanitarian Response Plan for Ukraine was launched by local and international humanitarian actors, however this had only been funded at 27% as of mid-August, with just $45.4 million of an overall ask of $168 million received.

The humanitarian sector is not one of the UK’s priorities  of support offered to Ukraine, as it is mainly focusing on conflict stabilization, economic development and reform, and security and defence. This means that only £5million of a total of £40million of assistance to Ukraine has been allocated to humanitarian efforts for the financial year 2020/21.

After the breaking news in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and the war in Donbas began, mass-media attention has drifted away from Ukraine.

It might happen again.

This war-without declaring war has already taken the lives of over 14 thousand people, including civilians, and shortened the days of those who could not cope anymore. It seems like internally displaced people and those who live in occupied areas are never on the radar of international leaders, unless they transform to the ‘huge numbers of refugees’ attempting to cross borders.  

* War also has impacted international migration. Over a million fled to Russia since 2014. The number of labour migrants from Ukraine in Poland has doubled since 2014 and constitutes 1.5 million people, partly because many workers fled from war but could were not eligible to claim asylum.

Note:

Some of the findings mentioned are from the project “Ukraine’s Hidden Tragedy: Under­standing the Outcomes of Population Displacement from the Country’s War-Torn Regions” (grant AH/P008305/1), supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK with the Partnership for Conflict, Crime, and Security Research.


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