Europe's Forgotten Refugees

The Humanitarian Crisis in Ukraine

Refugees flee the eastern Ukrainian town of Debaltseve, February 2015. Gleb Garanich / Reuters

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

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