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How Ukraine Is Forgetting Its Most Desperate Citizens

Life was already hard enough for those Ukrainians fleeing war in the East. But now they're even being deprived of the right to vote.

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As victims of persecution and war, refugees are an extremely vulnerable population -- but at least they fall under an internationally recognized protected category. What about those forcibly displaced people who do not fit under this legal definition? In Ukraine, where armed conflict between the military and pro-Russian separatists in the occupied east continues despite ceasefires, massive displacement is quickly leading to a major humanitarian crisis. What’s more, Ukraine's displaced people have lost not only their homes but also many of their civil rights (including, most ominously, the right to vote). This is grim news for the country’s fragile democratic transition.

Here, the uprooted go by a different name. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are not, strictly speaking, refugees, because they do not cross international borders. Due to Ukraine’s conflict, they have been forced to move to other parts of their home country. Since only eastern Ukraine is considered insecure or dangerous, Ukrainians are not eligible for asylum or any kind of temporary protection in the United States or Europe. Those who try to fight for this status almost inevitably lose their legal battles and are sent back home. International standards also dictate that because IDPs remain local, it is their own state that is responsible for protecting and assisting them.

This rationale assumes that Ukraine is willing and able to take care of all of its citizens. In fact, it is struggling to do so. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the government’s response towards its displaced population has been inadequate. Since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, newly elected officials have been busy trying to tackle corruption and economic instability -- and efforts to provide shelter and humanitarian aid for the growing population of IDPs have not kept pace. Ongoing fighting, including rocket attacks and shelling in the Donbas, has caused civilian casualties and destroyed homes and the infrastructure of many cities, leaving the government struggling to come up with substitute housing. As a result of the authorities’ inability to provide services, IDPs depend on local volunteer groups and non-governmental organizations for shelter, food, medical supplies and services, and access to information.

As victims of persecution and war, refugees are an extremely vulnerable population — but at least they fall under an internationally recognized protected category. What about those forcibly displaced people who do not fit under this legal definition? In Ukraine, where armed conflict between the military and pro-Russian separatists in the occupied east continues despite ceasefires, massive displacement is quickly leading to a major humanitarian crisis. What’s more, Ukraine’s displaced people have lost not only their homes but also many of their civil rights (including, most ominously, the right to vote). This is grim news for the country’s fragile democratic transition.

Here, the uprooted go by a different name. Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) are not, strictly speaking, refugees, because they do not cross international borders. Due to Ukraine’s conflict, they have been forced to move to other parts of their home country. Since only eastern Ukraine is considered insecure or dangerous, Ukrainians are not eligible for asylum or any kind of temporary protection in the United States or Europe. Those who try to fight for this status almost inevitably lose their legal battles and are sent back home. International standards also dictate that because IDPs remain local, it is their own state that is responsible for protecting and assisting them.

This rationale assumes that Ukraine is willing and able to take care of all of its citizens. In fact, it is struggling to do so. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the government’s response towards its displaced population has been inadequate. Since the 2014 Euromaidan revolution, newly elected officials have been busy trying to tackle corruption and economic instability — and efforts to provide shelter and humanitarian aid for the growing population of IDPs have not kept pace. Ongoing fighting, including rocket attacks and shelling in the Donbas, has caused civilian casualties and destroyed homes and the infrastructure of many cities, leaving the government struggling to come up with substitute housing. As a result of the authorities’ inability to provide services, IDPs depend on local volunteer groups and non-governmental organizations for shelter, food, medical supplies and services, and access to information.

Last October, a resolution passed by Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy and State Emergency Services allowed IDPs to gain access — in theory — to government assistance and free housing for up to six months. But, in practice, the registration process has been disorganized and confusing. Reception centers are under-resourced and overwhelmed. Officials have informed many displaced citizens that they are not qualified to register, or have turned them away citing a limited capacity to process applications. Limits of expertise and resources are indeed a serious problem, but such failures also raise serious questions about Ukraine’s political will to ensure that its democratic reforms extend to all its citizens.

Since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, over 1.4 million people have been registered as IDPs in Ukraine. Approximately 20,000 journalists, pro-Ukrainian activists, and Tatars escaped Crimea to western Ukraine because of threats, intimidation, or discrimination due to their ethnicity or political opinions. The remaining majority of IDPs fled fighting in Donetsk and Luhansk but remain concentrated in Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donbas region. (The photo above shows a displaced mother and child in a refugee center in the eastern Ukrainian city of Slavyansk in March.)

Internal displacement is a relatively new phenomenon in Ukraine, but within a year it has become one of Kiev’s biggest hidden challenges. Afraid of besmirching their country’s human rights record, officials continue to downplay the severity of the situation rather than raising national awareness. The government continues to declare lower numbers of IDPs than official UN estimates. International humanitarian principles require Kiev to develop policies that minimize the problems caused by displacement. But many of the government’s decisions are having the opposite effect. The country’s IDPs, who have already been through so much, now find themselves politically disenfranchised as a result.

Some residents of separatist-controlled areas who might otherwise have stayed put have found themselves compelled to relocate because of misguided resolutions passed by the Cabinet of Ministers. In response to Russia’s support for separatists in the Donbas, Ukraine has closed government offices and branches of the central bank, as well as halting funding for distribution of pensions in rebel-held cities. As a result, pensioners and older citizens were forced to move out of their communities and register as IDPs in Ukrainian-controlled areas in order to withdraw money and collect social services that are often their only means of subsistence. Similar “anti-terrorist” policies, which limit the delivery of humanitarian assistance in separatist-controlled areas, have also caused people to relocate for food and medical supplies. The Brookings Institution estimates that amendments to these resolutions could reduce the number of IDPs by 20 to 30 percent.

In July, Ukraine’s parliament approved a law that restricts IDPs from voting in the local parliamentary elections scheduled for October 25. IDPs are dispersed all over Ukraine, but they can register to vote only in their hometowns. The procedures to register as an IDP — or to vote — are heavily influenced by Soviet traditions, which required people to maintain internal passports. This system, known as propiska, links a person’s legal status and access to social services to their registered place of residence. Since IDPs live outside of their registered homes, their documents don’t allow them to vote in their new places of residence. Some officials are pushing to give IDPs voting rights based on where they currently reside. An alternative approach is to create separate polling stations in areas with many IDPs, but allow each person to vote based on their previous registration. But despite promises to create a simplified voting procedure, lawmakers haven’t been able to reach a decision on how to resolve this bureaucratic hurdle.

The right to vote is one the most critical freedoms an individual has in a democracy. But with elections quickly approaching, a sizable share of the Ukrainian population — the country’s most vulnerable people — have been left without a voice in a democratic process that affects their lives and ability to support or reject policies related to them.

Many IDPs are stigmatized in their host communities as Russian sympathizers, since they come mainly from the more pro-Russian east of the country. They are blamed for allegedly having welcomed Russia’s invasion. And many activists believe that President Poroshenko’s party is scared to let IDPs vote for precisely this reason – on the assumption that they would vote for the pro-Russian opposition rather than for Ukraine’s new, pro-Western leadership. Officials rebuff these accusations, placing the blame on lawmakers and a parliamentary committee for not preparing the draft laws on time.

Ukraine faces many urgent problems, but developing legislation that helps integrate IDPs within society would boost stability and a smoother transition towards democracy. It shows a commitment to reform and helps the country tackle international criticism. Ensuring voting rights would also acknowledge the possible long-term effects of displacement, which remains unaddressed by the government causing additional tension among all citizens. Without more national recognition of the IDP situation, Ukraine’s democratic revolution, which claims to uphold Western values and human rights, will have been futile.

SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP/Getty Images

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