What Happens to the Homes Ukrainians Leave Behind?

Abandonment, destruction, or occupation of homes and property is a grim hallmark of modern conflicts.

By , an international land tenure expert and former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office for Land Tenure and Property Rights, and , a senior fellow and director of New America’s Future of Land and Housing program.
An older woman with a walking stick stands in front of piles of rubble and a destroyed house.
An older woman with a walking stick stands in front of piles of rubble and a destroyed house.
An older woman stands in front of a destroyed house after bombardments in the village of Krasylivka, east of Kyiv, on March 20. ARIS MESSINIS/AFP via Getty Images

More than 4.7 million people have already fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and another 7.1 million are displaced internally, leaving behind their homes, livelihoods, and assets. Nearly 25 percent of the country’s population has been displaced, and that number grows each day.

What will happen to the properties that millions of Ukrainians are leaving behind, that have been stolen from them or shelled into rubble? When the day comes for Ukrainians to return and rebuild, how will they reclaim the homes still standing or receive compensation for the homes that have been destroyed or stolen?

Right now, Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland, and in many places their lives, and the most immediate needs are for military support and humanitarian assistance. Nonetheless, what happens with property now and after the fighting stops will impact the trajectory of Ukraine’s recovery and could spell the difference between manageable difficulties and decades of continued suffering.

More than 4.7 million people have already fled Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and another 7.1 million are displaced internally, leaving behind their homes, livelihoods, and assets. Nearly 25 percent of the country’s population has been displaced, and that number grows each day.

What will happen to the properties that millions of Ukrainians are leaving behind, that have been stolen from them or shelled into rubble? When the day comes for Ukrainians to return and rebuild, how will they reclaim the homes still standing or receive compensation for the homes that have been destroyed or stolen?

Right now, Ukrainians are fighting for their homeland, and in many places their lives, and the most immediate needs are for military support and humanitarian assistance. Nonetheless, what happens with property now and after the fighting stops will impact the trajectory of Ukraine’s recovery and could spell the difference between manageable difficulties and decades of continued suffering.

Abandonment, destruction, or occupation of homes and other property is a grim hallmark of modern conflicts. In the best cases, once a conflict is over, governments, humanitarian organizations, and development partners work to identify and return people’s property, sometimes via a land commission or a mass claims restitution process.

Nevertheless, restitution processes take years if not decades. If all goes well, displaced citizens can prove they are the rightful owners of the homes and businesses they left behind and eventually return, as was largely the case after Serbia’s 1998 invasion of Kosovo.

But it doesn’t typically play out that way. Often, refugees return to find that property records are missing, destroyed, or inaccurate. Other times, the scale of destruction is so vast that there’s no property left to return to—as may be the case in many Ukrainian cities that have been heavily bombed. In still other cases, retreating forces sabotage property as a way to inflict further suffering on the returning population.

In Nagorno-Karabakh, Armenian forces leveled nearly every home and business owned by Azerbaijanis. In Kosovo, departing Serbs stole property records belonging to Kosovars, creating challenges for rebuilding and reestablishing functioning land markets that hinder economic growth to this day. And in Iraq, the Islamic State confiscated and later sold the housing and land of fleeing Iraqis, using the proceeds to fund further aggression. In the wake of such conflicts, women, political opponents, and vulnerable members of society often struggle the hardest to regain lost property.

For all these reasons, botching the post-conflict property return can leave war survivors homeless and imperil a country’s economic recovery.

We do not yet know what a peace or cease-fire agreement might look like in Ukraine. In past conflicts, such as the invasion of Crimea, the breakaway of Transnistria, and the Georgian-Abkhaz conflict, Russia has negotiated for continued control of, or ability to station its troops in, certain cities and land as a prerequisite for a settlement. In a worst-case scenario, Russia will continue to occupy some parts of Ukraine, and some Ukrainian land and property will be permanently inaccessible to the rightful owners.

The Ukrainian government will face tough questions about how to accommodate citizens who lose property in this way—is the loss treated as permanent or temporary, and if permanent, where will these people be rehoused?

Experience from Azerbaijan suggests a costly process that may create internal political and social divisions with host communities that may see new arrivals as benefiting at their expense. There, the government provided housing and living allowances for nearly a decade to some 1 million Azerbaijani families displaced by the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. But the benefits provided to the displaced families were often seen as unfair to Azerbaijanis from elsewhere in the country who were not displaced but who also struggled from economic hardships created by the war.

Despite these difficulties, there are reasons for hope in Ukraine.

Unlike countries such as South Sudan and East Timor, which experienced devastating conflicts but lacked property registries, Ukraine successfully developed a land and property registration system after gaining independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine also has access to excellent satellite imagery pre- and post-conflict. And the Ukrainian government has already formed a working group to begin thinking through the massive property restitution challenges that await it after the war ends—remarkable foresight in the midst of a hot conflict.

Ukraine’s Ministry of Digital Transformation is also encouraging citizens to document property damage and submit claims using Diia, a government app launched a few years ago to serve as a sort of “one-stop shop for public services and a wallet for digital versions of official documents,” as one report described it; as of earlier this week, the app had already registered 66,000 claims, according to the ministry.

Two-thirds of Ukrainians own smartphones, meaning that they increasingly live their social and economic lives online and create digital trails that can help prove where they live. Even in the case where property records are destroyed or were incomplete to begin with, Ukrainians will be able to weave together, for example, their Google Maps location history, ride-share and food delivery receipts, online utility bills, and photos posted on social media to prove where they had lived before the conflict. The U.N. Pinheiro Principles, which govern postwar property restitution, are more flexible than typical property registration standards and could allow for these types of evidence.

There are several steps Ukraine’s government, citizens, and allies can take now and over the coming days and weeks to increase the chances that once the war is over, Ukrainians can reclaim their property.

First, and most importantly, Ukrainians should safeguard their own property and civil records as best they can. That means downloading and saving digital copies and paper backups of leases, deeds, wills, marriage licenses, and any other documents and informal records that can be used later to prove where they lived and what they owned. We are heartened to see Ukrainians already racing to protect civil records and digital archives.

Second, the Ukrainian government must try to secure any government structures responsible for the protection of property rights—that means safeguarding physical registries to the extent possible and making urgent cybersecurity investments to protect the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Infrastructure, and the state cadaster service from cyberattacks.

Third, the government will need to gather and preserve all satellite imagery that will be needed to reconstruct the locations of buildings and roads and allow Ukrainians whose property was destroyed after they fled to file claims. Satellite imagery showing changes in land cover will also help identify explosives, mass graves, and other markers that would speed up the land rehabilitation process.

Fourth, the government should think ahead to possible legal questions and challenges that will arise in the rebuilding process and draft new laws or administrative rules that would govern those situations. For example, some internally displaced Ukrainians may not want to return, even if they legally can, because they feel unsafe or because they have started lives elsewhere. How will those Ukrainians be compensated for property they left behind but do not want to reclaim?

Fifth, when the time comes, peace or cease-fire negotiators should put property restitution considerations on the negotiating table. Past peace agreements—including the Dayton Accords, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement between Sudan and South Sudan, and the Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire agreement between Azerbaijan and Armenia—ignored these considerations, resulting in post-conflict instability or contested property rights for decades. By contrast, peace negotiations and agreements between the government of Colombia and the FARC addressed property restitution head-on, allowing Colombians to make headway on the return of property.

And finally, the White House National Security Council and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), as well as other like-minded allies, should assist the Ukrainian government by providing technical assistance, legal support, and funding for implementing these recommendations and by extension facilitating the protection and recovery of property. USAID and other development partners have experience working on post-conflict property rights challenges, including in Ukraine.

At the same time, Ukraine is fortunate to have among its citizens many IT professionals, lawyers, geospatial analysts, and others with skills critical to property restitution. Providing funding and technical partnership to these local professionals will speed up implementation and better target local needs.

While the world watches in horror as Russian forces destroy Ukrainian cities and massacre civilians, it is not too early to begin talking about what happens after the conflict ends and Ukrainians return home. Beginning to think now about the return of property or compensation for lost property will accelerate Ukraine’s reconstruction.

Denys Nizalov, a professor of economics at De Montfort University and former director for the World Bank’s Supporting Transparent Land Governance in Ukraine program, also contributed ideas to this article.

Update, April 18, 2022: This article has been updated to include attribution for an additional contributor.

Gregory Myers is an international land tenure expert and former director of the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Office for Land Tenure and Property Rights. He chaired the U.N. Committee on World Food Security’s negotiation process for establishing the Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure of Land, Fisheries, and Forests. Twitter: @Gregorywmyers

Yuliya Panfil is a senior fellow and director of New America’s Future of Land and Housing program. Prior to joining New America, Panfil worked at Omidyar Network, where she sourced and managed property rights investments, and as a land governance and legal advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Twitter: @yneyman

Join the Conversation

Commenting on this and other recent articles is just one benefit of a Foreign Policy subscription.

Already a subscriber? .

Join the Conversation

Join the conversation on this and other recent Foreign Policy articles when you subscribe now.

Not your account?

Join the Conversation

Please follow our comment guidelines, stay on topic, and be civil, courteous, and respectful of others’ beliefs. Comments are closed automatically seven days after articles are published.

You are commenting as .

More from Foreign Policy

Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan
Two unidentified military vessels off Taiwan

Beijing’s Taiwan Aggression Has Backfired in Tokyo

Military exercises have stiffened Japanese resolve.

Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin

How to Take Down a Tyrant

Three steps for exerting maximum economic pressure on Putin.

A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.
A Taiwanese military outpost is seen beyond anti-landing spikes along the coast in Kinmen, Taiwan, on Aug. 10.

Why Doesn’t China Invade Taiwan?

Despite Beijing’s rhetoric, a full-scale invasion remains a risky endeavor—and officials think the island can be coerced into reunification.

Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.
Crosses, flowers, and photographs mark the graves of victims of the battles for Irpin and Bucha at the cemetery of Irpin, Ukraine, on May 16.

Russia’s Brutal Honesty Has Destroyed the West’s Appeasers

Yet plenty of Western intellectuals and politicians still ignore what Moscow is saying loud and clear.