By Airi Price
In recent months, Ukraine has found itself at the center of global news. Its ongoing, rising tensions with Russia have been carefully considered by the international community. Ukraine’s mounting refugee crisis, however, has received far less media coverage.
Since 2014, territorial disputes in the Crimean Peninsula and southeast Ukraine have incited armed conflict and subsequent widespread displacement. Under the premise of protecting Russian speakers in affected areas, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in March of 2014. Such event initiated a number of pro-Russian separatist movements throughout southeast Ukraine. The Ukrainian military’s advancement on separatists resulted in the death of 10,300 people, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
Currently, UNHCR estimates 1.5 million Ukrainians to be internally displaced from red zones like Nevelske.
Though majority of the violence ceased via a stalemate in 2016, tensions persist to the present day and sporadic episodes of armed insurrection still occur.
In October of 2021, Russia assembled various weaponry, vehicles, and nearly 100,000 troops near its shared border with Ukraine. Russia’s reasoning behind such actions remain a mystery. Nonetheless, the development alarmed Ukrainians – especially those residing in the border region. In November and December of 2021, machine gun fire and mortar shelling destroyed entire villages in the war zone.
One such community is Nevelske, located in what has been marked a red zone for the violence. In 2014, Nevelske was home to a population of 300. After 7 years of warfare, Aljazeera reports that just a handful of residents remain. They, too, may soon be forced to flee as gas, electricity, and water supplies have been damaged. Currently, UNHCR estimates 1.5 million Ukrainians to be internally displaced from red zones like Nevelske.
Residents of such villages receive some subsistence support from the Red Cross, People in Need, and other international aid organizations. Yet, the ongoing conflict has left 3.5 million Ukrainians in need of humanitarian aid. The elderly comprises 30% of this number – the largest proportion of required elderly assistance worldwide, according to UNHCR. Such figures, coupled with the lack of basic living resources in affected regions, prompt public health concerns – such as elevated risks for HIV and TB infection.
Many IDPs are now forced to rent housing along the outskirts of Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city located in northeast Ukraine. Following Russia’s invasion in 2014, an astounding 250,000 people sought refuge in Kharkiv. By 2019, The New Humanitarian estimates 130,000 people remain displaced in the city, unable to return homes due to wholly destroyed villages or ongoing combat. As 2022 unfolds, the growing strain between Russia and Ukraine has trumped any hope for IDP repatriation in the near future.
Given the stoic circumstances, the Ukrainian government has put forth efforts in providing subsidized housing and healthcare for IDPs.
According to Ukrinform, the displaced population will receive nearly USD $10 million in compensation for rehousing in February of 2022. The health budget will also be expanded for COVID-19 measures and other public health concerns related to displacement. Aside from domestic efforts, Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, urged NATO and the West to act with greater intention in contesting Russian threats toward Ukrainians.
In response, the US Senate has organized a bipartisan bill to deter Russia from further aggression or invasion.
Reuters, who spoke with lead senators in its drafting, reported that the finalized bill would include strict sanctions on Russian banks and sovereign debt, as well as enhanced military assistance to Ukraine. In addition to US efforts, some NATO member countries – including Spain, France, Estonia, and the UK – have reinforced their military support since the start of 2022. Though Ukraine welcomes such actions, Russia has persistently objected to NATO’s interference in the situation and any aid sent to its opposition. As any foreign action (or inaction) enrages either side, many in the international community are holding their breath for what could happen next.
With growing uncertainty of military outcomes, some countries have begun to consider the refugee crisis steadily developing in Ukraine. As of 2021, the UNHCR estimates that at least 100,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled the country – with a majority resettling in Russia, Italy, Kazakhstan, and Poland.
Should an invasion occur, it is expected that this figure will rise exponentially. Some speculate that Ukrainian immigration will reach Western Europe and even North America. Thus, de-escalation of Russian aggression is only the beginning of foreign pressure to support Ukraine. Many potential host nations are already grappling with prior refugee influxes from other regions. Given this, there will be a scramble to accommodate the Ukrainian diaspora.