KIEV, Ukraine — The number of displaced Ukrainians has risen sharply in recent months. In early June, 2,600 people fled the Luhansk and Donetsk regions of eastern Ukraine. Now, more than 102,600 have left the war-torn battleground where Ukrainian forces have been fighting pro-Russian separatists for months.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 117,000 Ukrainians have left their homes and now seek shelter within the country, while close to 170,000 Ukrainians have crossed into Russia to seek refuge in just the last seven months. Six thousand have applied for refugee status, while 50,000 have applied for temporary asylum in the country whose infrastructure now struggles to absorb the incoming Ukrainians.
U.N. estimates also claim that roughly 1,000 Ukrainians flee the country every day. As winter approaches and violence escalates, it has become common for families to uproot and head toward borders—any borders—to seek for safety.
Many remain in Ukraine, but are displaced, living in temporary shelters provided to those who have either lost their homes to shelling and airstrikes or are trekking across the country indefinitely.
South of Donetsk, 25,000 people live in temporary shelters. Such shelters, humanitarian organizations warn, are not equipped to deal with the brutal cold that afflicts Eastern Europe during the winter. If facilities aren’t winterized, thousands could face the harsh weather without heating. Moreover, there remains concern over the growing problem of water scarcity.
U.N.’s European director Vincent Cochetel told news outlets that poverty has been accompanying the lives of many Ukrainian refugees who chose to flee to Russia: “Sometimes they just walk across the border, they come with plastic bags. Many of them are really destitute.”
Ukraine is Europe’s third poorest country, and the war has not been kind to the country’s already paltry economy.
GDP has shrunk 4.7 percent during the second quarter of this year. From just April—the time when pro-Russian separatists first began fighting—to June, GDP has declined by 2.3 percent.
Unemployment rates have increased from 7.7 percent last year to 9.3 percent by the closing of this year’s first quarter.
Ukraine, which relied on Russia as its primary trading partner, has also seen exports to the neighboring country—accused by many of supporting the separatists—decrease by 24 percent compared to the same time period last year.
The statistic comes as no surprise given the recent sanctions imposed on Russia by the West in response to the country’s annexation of Crimea. Russia has retaliated by banning the import of select foods from countries involved with said sanctions.
Unfortunately, it is the Ukrainians who have suffered the most from the trading battle between Russia and its opponents, amounting to a great strain on the Ukrainian national budget, which is already burdened by the money it must funnel to troops. Part of this burden has been alleviated by a meager “war tax” of 1.5 percent, but most experts believe the Ukrainian economy will continue its descent.
Ukrainian government officials project GDP to continue its decline at a rate of 6 to 7 percent. The International Monetary Fund (IMF), which recently committed to a $17 billion bailout to help the country avert a default, predicts a similar rate of 6.5 percent. Meanwhile, $3.2 billion of the bailout has already been loaned to the government.
Ukrainian Economics Minister Pavlo Sheremeta attributes at least 3 percent of the decline in GDP to the immediate losses incurred by war: a destabilized infrastructure of the largely industrialized eastern Ukraine, a nervousness to invest, and civilian casualties.
Officials believe the largest obstacle toward economic recovery is a lack of foreign investment. For instance, the Swedish fashion retail store, H&M, suspended its long-prepared plan to expand its franchise in Ukraine’s capital of Kiev.
Before the war began, it was estimated that a third of Ukraine’s population of nearly 46 million lived under the poverty line. But despite efforts by the IMF and others, the economy continues to tank and Ukrainian refugees drift further into destitution.
Yet, May’s election of President Petro Poroshenko, which enjoyed a surprising voter turnout of 60 percent, showed encouraging signs of resolve that one can only hope will outlast the dispiriting fatigues of prolonged war.
– Shehrose Mian