In recent years, international headlines have featured stories and images of the ongoing refugee crisis in the Middle East and its effects in western Europe. Few are aware, however, that the fourth-largest source of internal refugees in 2015 was within Europe itself.

Ukraine now keeps company with Iraq, Syria, and Yemen as one of the world’s leading producers of internal refugees. Figures vary, but by most estimates there are around 1.7 million internally displaced in Ukraine and another 1.4 million Ukrainians living as refugees in western Europe and Russia. Refugees first trickled out of Crimea after its annexation by Russia in early 2014, but their numbers surged after civil war broke out, following the Russian-backed proclamation of the separatist Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in eastern Ukraine. The two internationally brokered cease-fire agreements—Minsk and Minsk II—have since failed to produce an enduring peace.

Two of this article’s co-authors have just returned from field research in Ukraine, where we investigated how internal refugees have developed strategies to survive and how the Ukrainian government supports—or fails to support—them. 


One of the major problems faced by refugees is that they are subject to violence from both sides of the conflict. A July 2016 report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, for instance, condemned both the Russian and the Ukrainian governments for human rights abuses and the use of torture in the disputed territories. Those who had escaped the conflict zones told us frightful stories of friends, neighbors, and family members who simply disappeared—often never to return. Others spoke of male family members who fled to avoid conscription by the separatists. One woman tearfully recounted the murder of her husband and the destruction of her home but was unaware which side was responsible. Some instead recounted small acts of humanity, such as the woman who described separatist soldiers helping her move her children to safety as she lay in a public square, severely wounded by shelling.

But even for the displaced who are able to reach safety, the Ukrainian government offers minimal help. Most must find their own housing and often struggle to do so. Refugees told of living with volunteer host families or distant relatives but then feeling compelled to move after a month or two, either because they did not want to impose or because it was clearly time to move on. They often ended up in costly yet decrepit and overcrowded rentals. One woman, after finally deciding to move her family from the separatist capital of Donetsk to the government-controlled city of Dnipropetrovsk, found nowhere to live upon arrival. A friend gave her the phone number of a man who was known to provide housing for refugees. After a phone interview, she took her mother and son and moved to the Kharkiv shelter, a converted children’s summer camp that has seen 5,000 refugees since the onset of the war.

To assist the displaced, the Ukrainian government created a small pot of social benefits to help with rent, food, and medicines for those who register with the state and can prove their refugee status. These include funds set aside for special groups, such as large families, single-parent households, and the disabled. Yet one refugee we spoke with—a mother with two young children—claimed that she could not qualify for single-mother benefits because she had no documentation of her husband’s death. Although she did not provide details, her husband may have died fighting for the separatists, whose families are excluded from government support.

Many refugees tell stories of humiliation while trying to register formally as a pereselenets, or “settler”—an insulting term commonly used to describe the refugees, which ignores their lack of choice and the trauma of displacement. One young woman, “Irina,” described spending days going from one office to another in an attempt to register for benefits, only to be denied by a bureaucrat on the grounds that she had a job and didn’t need government support. She had no way to appeal.

A boy flees conflict in eastern Ukraine, February 2015.
A boy flees conflict in eastern Ukraine, February 2015. 
Stringer / Reuters

The difficulties in registering, including a confusing bureaucracy and opaque rules surrounding benefits, deprive many of access not only to government assistance (however meager) but also to basic necessities such as housing, education, and medical care, all of which require formal registration. Once registered, however, internal refugees are denied the right to vote in local elections unless they give up their refugee status.

These issues are compounded by the Ukrainian government’s apparent suspicion of internal refugees, more than half of whom are elderly. Last February, the Ministry of Social Policy suspended benefit payments to the internally displaced until their addresses could be verified, despite the lack of a verification system. Pensions have since been withheld from people living in the “temporarily occupied territories” of the east as well as from those in government-controlled areas who cannot prove their place of residence. Yet landlords often avoid issuing leases and other documentation in order to conceal rent income, and among the dozens of refugees who spoke to us, only a handful could show us their rental agreements. Many elderly Ukrainians simply choose to stay in the occupied territories and endure the shelling since their homes are their only resource. 


But where the government has failed, ordinary Ukrainian citizens have stepped up: those who have given up jobs to work for humanitarian causes or volunteer their spare time, sometimes at substantial peril to themselves. Some have even founded nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). One, Proliska—now a partner of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—provided humanitarian assistance to both sides of the conflict until its leader, Evgeny Kaplin, was blacklisted by the government, presumably for offering aid to the separatists. Others, such as CrimeaSOS and Station Kharkiv, provide legal aid, food, clothing, psychological counseling, employment services, and other forms of aid. International governments and NGOs have offered further support.

Informal networks of humanitarian assistance, made up of both private individuals and NGOs, have spontaneously developed to become the sole means of support for many of the internally displaced. Cries for help—made through phone calls and Facebook—were answered by ordinary Ukrainians, who contributed meals for months on end for the hundreds of thousands of people fleeing violence and Russian aggression. Such heroic generosity has far outstripped what the Ukrainian government has provided for its people.

Yet although the Ukrainian government has no national strategy for managing the humanitarian crisis, there are at least some signs of a change in approach. In April 2016, the government created a new Ministry for Temporary Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons of Ukraine. The ministry is tasked with coordinating international and local assistance, improving conditions for the displaced, reintegrating them into Ukrainian society, and protecting their legal rights. Kiev is also working with the International Organization for Migration to develop a verification system (soon to be implemented) for allocating pensions and other assistance payments at a time when the government is facing financial crisis.

The United States, the European Union, and international governmental agencies should use their support for Ukraine as leverage to pressure Kiev to end its human rights abuses and begin crafting a strategy for assisting its internal refugees. Both Brussels and Washington are already committing millions to help rebuild the country, with plans for more to come—U.S. Senator John McCain, for instance, announced recently that the Senate markup of the National Defense Authorization Act provides Ukraine with up to $500 million in military aid in fiscal year 2017. Further aid to Ukraine, however, should be made conditional upon the improved treatment of both its citizens and the internally displaced.

Leaders in Washington and elsewhere should act sooner rather than later to address the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. They have the leverage to influence Kiev, and allowing this crisis to fester will carry with it the threat of persistent instability on the edge of a fragile-seeming Europe. 

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  • BETH MITCHNECK is Professor of Geography at the University of Arizona and a 2015–2016 Op-Ed Project Public Voices Fellow. JANE ZAVISCA is Associate Professor of Sociology and Associate Dean for Research, College of Social & Behavioral Sciences, at the University of Arizona. She is the author of the book Housing the New RussiaTHEODORE P. GERBER is Professor of Sociology and Director of the Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
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