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Ukraine’s evacuation operations in Afghanistan, Afghan refugees and issues concerning internally displaced persons (IDPs)

Ukraine’s evacuation operations in Afghanistan, Afghan refugees and issues concerning internally displaced persons (IDPs)

Ukraine has a rich experience in conducting evacuation operations. Let us only recall Ukrainian diplomats’ efforts to bring Ukrainians from abroad to the motherland when the coronavirus crisis started.

But today the attention of Ukrainian and international audiences focus on developments in Afghanistan and countries’ evacuation of both their residents and non-residents from Kabul.

Ukraine is not an exception as it has carried out 6 evacuation races from Afghanistan bringing more than 650 people to safety from Kabul controlled by the Taliban. Evacuees included not only Ukrainians but also citizens of Afghanistan with 370 of them having asked to grant them refugee status in Ukraine. It causes several questions: what is the situation with refugees in Ukraine? How many of them have already entered Ukraine and whether there are enough places to accommodate them? Meanwhile, the relevant issue remains about internally displaced persons (IDPs) and whether there is a difference between providing accommodation for refugees and IDPs.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Representation in Ukraine (UNHCR Representation in Ukraine), as of the beginning of 2021, 2172 refugees and 2430 asylum seekers lived in Ukraine. Refugees in Ukraine originate from more than 60 countries with majority of them being from Afghanistan (refugees – 38%; asylum seekers – 25%), Syria (refugees – 24%; asylum seekers – 7%), the Russian Federation (refugees – 6%; asylum seekers – 9%) and Somali (refugees – 4%, asylum seekers – 5%).

Referring to the UNHCR Representation in Ukraine data, as of the 1st January 2021, 822 refugees and persons who need additional protection from Afghanistan stayed in Ukraine. It encompasses 36% of all refugees in Ukraine. In comparing UNHCR Representation in Ukraine information from January and July 2021 the number of Afghan refugees has increased by 3 persons only.

When we look at the dynamics during the last year then the UNHCR Representation in Ukraine commented as follows:

«Those who look for protection from Afghanistan were always among the top-3 biggest groups of applicants in Ukraine. Generally we are not speaking about big numbers. Basically 597 new applicants addressed to the State Migration Service of Ukraine in 2020 and only 134 of them were citizens of Afghanistan.»

Thus, Ukraine is not usually the final destination for refugees. But it is worth taking into consideration that Afghan refugees constitute over one third of all refugees in Ukraine and probable granting of refugee status for 370 Afghans will only increase the percentage of refugees from Afghanistan among all refugees in Ukraine.

In addition Ukrainians’ attitude toward refugees from other countries should be taken into consideration. For instance, according to a survey conducted within the publication “What Ukrainians know and think of human rights. A progress study (2016-2018): findings of second sociological survey”, 28,4% of Ukrainians were against granting refugee status for foreigners who had left their countries due to persecution by their governments. Overall percentage of Ukrainians who were against refugees constituted almost one third (32,6%) because except for those who were against any refugees (28,4%), an additional 4,2% were against granting refugee status for persons from the Middle East and Africa. So, despite little support for granting refugee status for all foreigners that included 38% of Ukrainians, the other two thirds either did not manage to answer (30,6%) or were generally against refugees (28,4%) or refugees from the Middle East in particular (32,6%).

Why is one third of Ukrainians respondents (from a general sample of 1998 persons) against refugees? The same publication “What Ukrainians know and think of human rights. A progress study (2016-2018) : findings of second sociological survey” provides the following reasons for negative or cautious attitude toward refugees, namely lack of education and culture regarding refugees as well as low level of tolerance to something different. Another reason for cautious/negative attitude toward refugees may be that only 27,7% of Ukrainians believe tolerance is an important value of human rights. So the lack of education and low tolerance to representatives of other cultures are the reasons why one third of Ukrainians has either cautious or negative attitudes towards refugees.

Taking into account that although Ukraine has over 2100 refugees, the state can provide temporary accommodation in three shelters for 421 persons only, namely in the city of Yahotyn where 101 refugees can be accommodated at the same time; in Odesa - up to 200 persons, in Mukachevo - up to 120 persons, 70 persons - in Mukachevo and 50 in the city of Perechyn). It should be also mentioned that Ukraine does not provide free emergency treatment, social aid as well as language courses of the State of their residency in order to adapt to a new environment.

Therefore, Ukraine should adopt an international experience in its approach to refugees. Thus, the experience of the Baltic countries could be interesting as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia have state programs to learn a national language and provide social adaptation for refugees. For example, in Estonia, the Ministry of Culture provides refugees with 300 hours of learning Estonian language, and the program “Let's get acquainted”, which provides joint activities between refugees and local residents, helps to make new acquaintances and adapt better to the local society in general. In Latvia, for example, learning Latvian language for refugees encompasses six levels, and mastering each one lasts 6 weeks or 150 hours. And in Lithuania, refugees can receive free necessary medical and psychological assistance, as well as social services at the State Border Guard Service or at the Refugee Reception Center. Therefore, in Ukraine, it is necessary to consider the option of introducing a state program for learning Ukrainian language among those who are in the process of obtaining or have already been granted with the refugee status, as well as the option of providing such persons with a state program of social adaptation that may be introduced by the Ministry of Culture and Information Policy of Ukraine.

So, despite the fact that Ukraine has a small number of refugees, there are many problems with providing them with adequate social services. These problems include few shelters for temporary accommodation and a lack of state programs that would contribute to the adaptation in a new environment. Having this in mind Ukraine should take into account the experience of the Baltic countries where there are state programs for refugees’ adaptation.

As mentioned above, the shetlers for temporary accommodation of refugees do not meet housing needs of all refugees but only of approximately 25%. However the housing issue of internally displaced persons is more complicated. For instance, according to the Unified information database on internally displaced persons, as of July 2021, 1 473 650 people were registered as IDPs. Due to such a huge number of those who were forced to change their residence, a question arises about ensuring housing for those who were not able to stay in the combat area in Donbas but did not have enough money to buy an accommodation. For example, in 2020 Ukrainian Parliament Commissioner for Human Rights Liudmyla Denisova informed that 70% of internally displaced persons needed accommodation and that is more than 1 million people (approximately 1 mln 31 thousand IDPs).

Additionally, the slow pace of providing IDPs with accommodation should be taken into consideration. For instance, Ukraine bought 340 apartments for IDPs during 2017-2020. In 2021 Ukraine allocated ₴125 mln for IDPs’ housing needs to purchase approximately the same amount of apartments that were bought in 2017-2020 in order to provide accomodation for about 850 persons.

In order to accomodate IDPs there is a state program 70/30. The state budget covers 70% of the price and the local budget - 30%. Moreover, IDP does not have to make any payments. However the given accommodation will constitute as a part of communal ownership. At the same time another state program “Affordable Housing” provides that both the state and an IDP pay 50% of the accommodation price. However the program does not have a budget for 2021 and it does not help to resolve housing issues for IDPs given that 16 thousand Ukrainians have registered to take part in the “Affordable Housing” program.

It should be noted that refugees do not compete with IDPs as the former are provided with shelters for temporary accommodation and the latter have state programs that provide free accommodation although they will not meet needs of the vast majority of IDPs.