Internally Displaced Persons from Crimea and Donbas

October 24, 2015
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Internally Displaced Persons from Crimea and Donbas

The third and final day of the 2015 Danyliw Seminar began with presentations from Laura Dean and Greta Uehling about internally displaced persons (IDPs), people who have been forced by the Crimean annexation or the war in Donbas to relocate from their homes to elsewhere in Ukraine.

Laura Dean reported findings from a research trip she made this past summer to Kyiv to study the Ukrainian government’s response to IDPs. Approximately 1.5 million people have officially registered as IDPs in Ukraine, but Dean reported that aid workers on the ground in Kyiv frequently describe the real number as closer to 4 or even 5 million people. Many who have been displaced may be discouraged from formally registering, Dean argued. Some fear military conscription or taxes. Others weren’t able to produce proper paperwork after fleeing their homes. As a result, the number of registered IDPs is a low estimate of the total displaced population.

Dean focused much of her presentation on the Ukrainian government’s response to this humanitarian crisis. Kyiv has not responded perfectly, Dean argued, but no government is able to respond perfectly; nevertheless, the Ukrainian response has not been as poor as some have argued. They are providing regular financial assistance to IDPs—between 400 and 800 hryven per month depending on age, family size, and disability status. Displaced residents are being housed in collective living centers; these centers are not adequate housing solutions in the long term, but people were placed in them quickly as need arose.

Dean complimented the speed of the Ukrainian government’s response. Kyiv was able to create a unified registration system, which allowed IDPs to identify themselves only once in order to receive services, which she described as a very good thing. Unfortunately, though, this legislation was passed so quickly that logistical problems were not resolved before it was put into law. One of the unplanned and most problematic consequences of this legislation is the mass disenfranchisement of IDPs in Ukraine. Elections are being held in Ukraine in a matter of days, and IDPs will be unable to vote.

Greta Uehling offered preliminary findings from her in-depth ethnographic research—also conducted this previous summer—on the lived experiences and perceptions of IDPs in Ukraine. Based on interviews with a broad spectrum of people who had fled from Crimea and from the Donbas to other urban centers, Uehling argued that a shift in taking place in political subjectivity in Ukraine, leading to a new Ukrainian identify that is reducing the social space between groups separated by previously salient social divides.

Uehling noted that a narrative of political agency is gaining traction which departs from previous narrative modes engaged to understand major events (such as the holodomor or the deportations of the 1940s). Her informants enthusiastically vocalized their rejection of victimhood, claiming that they will find a way to be strong, describing themselves as survivors. At the same time, however, trenchant socio-political narratives are emerging from dormancy and finding new footholds in the moral narratives used to explain the current conflicts. The most prominent of these is an accusation of treachery against anyone whose life circumstance deviates from an imagined ideal of national fidelity. People were called traitors, for example, for seeking a Russian passport in Crimea or maintaining a romantic relationship with a Russian partner.

In discussion, Iulia Shukan asked Uehling to elaborate on the differences she observed between IDPs from the east and from Crimea. Uehling refrained from making firm declarations on these differences, as she is still in the process of analyzing her data, but was able to report narratives of political agency were much more prevalent among IDPs from Crimea and especially more prevalent among Crimean men, indicating that deeper differences in the political subjectivity of these two sets of IDPs remain to be identified.

Mychailo Wynnyckyj pressed Dean to elaborate on the numbers she reported. He asked whether, based on the pre-conflict populations of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, the existence of 4 million IDPs was even possible. He also shared observations that he made recently in the town of Artemivsk, only a few kilometers from the frontline in the east. There are 70,000 registered IDPs in this city; however, he said, none of them live there. They drive across the border from the DNR to receive their pensions and benefits and then drive back. He asked whether this might be a good explanation for why so many IDPs are registered in regions so close to the conflict zone—a pattern he found curious as it seems logical for a person fleeing war to move as far away from the fighting as possible.

Dean responded with the observation that advocates and aid workers certainly have the most to gain from overstating the number of IDPs in Ukraine. Nevertheless, knowing the exact number and understanding the movement of people across and through various internal borders takes significant effort. “These are fluid populations,” she observed. One would need to have significant human resources on the ground talking to IDPs and tracing the paths of migration to gain a full sense of where people have been, where they are going, and how many IDPs there truly are.

Amandine Regamey added to Dean’s response with the observation that IDPs do not always flee far from conflict, as Wynnyckyj suggested. For many, she observed, it makes sense to stay close to home. She argued that these practical decisions made by those suffering the consequences of armed conflict should not be used as justification for stigmatizing them as a group. Dean agreed, noting that very few IDPs she has met and interviewed have left collective shelters, and many of those who had left simply returned home after the frontline shifted, returning their homes to Ukrainian control. People aren’t moving forward with new lives, because they are waiting for the opportunity to go back home, she said

Margarita Balmaceda asked Uehling to elaborate on what the new common civic identity she discussed might mean for the Crimean Tatar community. In particular, she asked what might happen when Ukrainian identity is no longer the best vehicle advancing the social and political causes of the Tatar community and what this alliance might mean for our understanding of civic identity. Joshua Tucker expanded upon this line of inquiry, asking whether a common Ukrainian identity (as opposed to multiple, oppositional forms of civic identity that proliferated in pre-Maidan, pre-conflict Ukraine) might undercut democracy in Ukraine. Was this new identity a democratic identity, or was it too much rooted in narratives of loyalty that will undermine democratic progress?

In response, Uehling suggested that there is, indeed, an element of strategy in the blending of Crimean Tatar identity into an emergent pan-Ukrainian identity. Tatar leaders have been emphasizing that Tatars have been loyal to Ukraine for the past 20 years, and this is certainly a strategic claim. At the same time, mainland Ukrainians and displaced Crimean Tatars are integrating socially in a way that they have not done before. Their new physical proximity is leading people to discover that they have similar wedding rituals, that they have the same village customs, that they know all of the same songs with the same melodies—even if the lyrics they know are in different languages. This is changing the place that Crimea occupies in the popular imagination of the Ukrainian nation, and Tatars are experiencing a shift in the way that they are recognized by others. 

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