UNHCR calls for unimpeded access in eastern Ukraine

Concerns over government measures worsening plight of displaced, creating conditions for major humanitarian crisis

Cyclists passing a residential building hit by artillery in the village of Semenovka on the outskirts of Slaviansk, Donetsk region. Over the weeks of the city's siege, over half of its population left their homes, but thousands of IDP's later returned, many finding their homes destroyed in the fighting.  © UNHCR/I.Zimova

GENEVA, January 23 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency on Friday expressed concern that new Ukrainian government regulations are undermining humanitarian agencies' ability to help people in need, creating the conditions for a major humanitarian crisis.

New security clearance procedures are in place and specific documentation is now required to pass through checkpoints in the east of Ukraine. These new procedures apply to Ukrainian nationals, the United Nations, NGOs, national and some other international humanitarian organisations.

"These restrictions on movements within the Donetsk and Luhansk regions in the east of the country further complicate an already difficult situation for those forcibly displaced and made worse by the intensified fighting we have seen in recent days, " UNHCR spokesperson Karin de Gruijl told journalists in Geneva.

She added: "These practices restrict access to non-government-controlled areas and limit the delivery of needed humanitarian assistance into the conflict zones." The resolution adopted by the Ukrainian government reportedly entered into force yesterday (Thursday 22 January) limiting all movements in and out of the conflict zones. Yet even before it came into effect, UNHCR had already experienced obstructions on a numbers of occasions when attempting to deliver aid in the east, de Gruijl said.

The new move follows two resolutions adopted by the government in November: one cutting funding of any government institutions (resolution 595) and the second relating to services in "temporarily uncontrolled territory" (resolution 637). These regulations are creating additional displacement - forcing some vulnerable people to leave their homes and register as IDPs - in order to receive their pensions and other social benefit payments.

"UNHCR is concerned that the plight of people living in non-government-controlled areas is worsening by the day and the conditions are being created for a major humanitarian crisis," de Gruijl said.

UNHCR established a presence in Donetsk in late December as a part of a wider United Nations initiative to meet the acute needs in the region following security assurances received from the de facto authorities.

Since the third week of December, UNHCR has managed to provide some aid in Donetsk. It includes warm blankets, jackets and reinforced plastic sheets for fast temporary repairs to damaged windows and roofs. UNHCR has placed a small number of staff in Donetsk to provide further assistance ahead of February, one of the coldest months in Ukraine. UNHCR has prepositioned a further 3,500 blankets, 3,500 bed linen kits and 7,000 towels in Donetsk.

So far this year, the UN refugee agency has been able to deliver to 2,800 vulnerable IDPs residing in five Donetsk collective centres. Similar aid has been provided to the Donetsk city hospital that serves the most of the affected population.

Ukrainian government estimates of the number of people internally displaced vary widely, from 659,000 (according to State Emergency Services) to 921,000 (according to Ministry of Social Policy).

A complicating factor is that according to some reports received by UNHCR, many displaced people have registered with the Ministry of Social Policy as IDPs for the sole purpose of transferring their pension and move back to their usual homes once their pensions and social benefits have been collected. UNHCR is working with authorities in Ukraine to improve IDP data collection systems, including more accurate numbers of people displaced by the conflict.

UNHCR calls on all parties to the conflict to respect International Humanitarian Law, to facilitate the movement of civilians affected by the conflict, ensure the unhindered movement of humanitarian aid organisations and to guarantee the safety of aid workers.

In addition to those internally displaced, some 245,510 Ukrainian citizens have applied for international protection in the Russian Federation as reported by the authorities, while some 244,326 Ukrainians applied for other forms of stay in Russia (applications for citizenship, temporary/permanent residence permit, compatriots' resettlement programme), though many are using the visa free agreement.

The number of Ukrainians seeking safety in other neighbouring countries has also increased, but the majority pursue forms of legal stay other than asylum (since January 2014): Belarus (663 seeking asylum; 59,637 pursuing other forms of stay), Moldova (140 asylum; 5,344 other).

In the EU, some 11,187 Ukrainians have applied for international protection, with most applications lodged in Poland (2,253), Germany (2,205) and Sweden (1,255).