On 21 March 2020, all entry/exit crossing points (EECPs) along the 427-kilometer ‘contact line’ in eastern Ukraine were closed in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. Before the closure, people living in both Government and non-Government controlled areas (GCA and NGCA) crossed the ‘contact line’ an average of 1.2 million times each month to reach social and administrative services, visit banks, access health care and education, withdraw pensions, and to visit family and loved ones. During the summer, the rates were even higher, averaging 1.3 million crossings per month.
Half a year after the introduction of COVID-19-related quarantine measures, most EECPs remain closed, with only two of the five official crossing points allowing people to cross the ‘contact line’ (EECP ‘Stanytsia Luhanska’ in Luhanska oblast and EECP ‘Novotroitske’ in Donetska oblast). Since the closure in March, there has been a gradual easing of quarantine restrictions and adoption of procedures to allow humanitarian exemptions to permit people with acute needs to cross, leading to an increase in the number of civilian crossings of the ‘contact line’. In August, almost 84,000 people were able to cross compared to 37,700 in July and 17,700 in June. While the number of crossings in August is the highest since the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions, it represents only 7 per cent of the 1.3 million crossings during August 2019.
NGCA-imposed measures concerning crossing the ‘contact line’
To a large extent, crossings to both GCA and NGCA have been limited to those who have been granted humanitarian exemptions advocated for by the humanitarian community. These exemptions include the death or illness of a close relative, as well as severe or chronic illness requiring urgent medical intervention. In addition to those receiving humanitarian exemptions for crossing, people who have official residency in any oblast on either side of the ‘contact line’ are permitted to return to their place of official residency.
People are permitted to cross to NGCA if they have been included on lists pre-approved by NGCA entities in control. All people crossing are subject to two weeks of either self-quarantine or observation in a health facility upon arrival. NGCA of Luhanska and Donetska oblasts have different approaches to including people on pre-approved lists.
In Luhanska oblast (NGCA), permanent residents may enter the territory by showing relevant documents that confirm their residency status. People without permanent residency may enter if they have humanitarian reasons that fall within approved criteria and have been included in a pre-approved list. In order to be included in such a list for crossing, people must contact a responsible entity in Luhanska oblast (NGCA) by phone or e-mail. It usually takes up to two weeks for the request to be processed. As of 25 September, people with residency in NGCA of Luhanska oblast are limited to just one crossing per month.
In Donetska oblast (NGCA), only people included on pre-approved lists based on humanitarian exemptions are allowed to enter. Reportedly it can take up to a month to be included on the list by a responsible entity in Donetska oblast (NGCA) despite having humanitarian reasons for crossing. Furthermore, only people with a permanent residency in GCA are permitted to leave Donetska oblast (NGCA). Reportedly, those who cross to GCA are required to sign a document declaring that they will not return to NGCA of Donetska oblast until the official quarantine period ends.
Until mid-September, all those crossing to Donetska oblast (NGCA) were required to complete their mandatory 14-day self-quarantine/observation in a designated facility. Now, people crossing to Donetska oblast (NGCA) can take a COVID-19 express test and, subject to negative results, can self-quarantine at the place of residence/stay.
The discrepancies in the approaches of two NGCAs and the difference in crossing points’ operations (twice a week in Donetska oblast and every day in Luhanska oblast) have resulted in a striking difference in the number of crossings between the two oblasts. In August 2020, 96 per cent of all crossings of the ‘contact line’ took place in Luhanska oblast (80,600).
Government of Ukraine-imposed measures concerning crossing the ‘contact line’
Entrance to GCA from NGCA is primarily conditioned by the Government of Ukraine’s (GOU) requirement for self-quarantine/observation. The GOU does not impose restrictions on people crossing from GCA to NGCA. Those people who seek to cross to GCA are mandated by the Government of Ukraine to undergo mandatory self-isolation monitored through a smartphone app called ‘Dii Vdoma’ [‘Act at Home’]. Self-isolation can be ended early with a negative result of a COVID-19 test. These tests are relatively expensive, and therefore not an option for the most vulnerable population.
If those crossing to GCA do not have a smartphone or are unable to use the app, they must agree to observation in a designated facility. From 7 September, an exception was introduced by the GoU to allow entry without self-isolation for students from NGCA enrolled in, intending to enter or studying in GCA educational facilities. An NGCA student can also be accompanied by one caretaker (parent, guardian, or another authorized representative) during the crossing who is also not required to self-isolate.
The requirement to use a smartphone app to monitor self-isolation has prevented people without smartphones or internet connection from crossing the ‘contact line’. The alternative option of observation in a designated facility is not always available due to the limited capacity of the GCA observation facilities. Moreover, occasional malfunctioning of the ‘Dii Vdoma’ app, which has been reported a few times, has resulted in people getting stuck at the ‘contact line’ for several hours while waiting for the app to start working again.
Humanitarian and other actors continue to provide assistance to people who have become stuck at the EECPs with food, water, and other basic supplies, however, greater efforts are required to prevent these situations from happening in the future.
NGCA pensioners remain blocked from their pensions in GCA
With a 93 per cent drop in the number of people crossing the ‘contact line’, those most impacted by the closure are the elderly, who are unable to withdraw their pensions in areas under Government control. It is estimated that more than one million people have been impacted by the closure, including some 300,000 elderly and 163,000 vulnerable persons who have not been able to cross the ‘contact line’ since late March. After six months without access to the only source of income for many of them, pensioners are forced to find alternative ways to survive, including by depleting their savings, borrowing or by accessing their pensions through costly and legally challenging routes.
In her statement on the International Day of Peace (celebrated annually on 21 September), the Humanitarian Coordinator in Ukraine Osnat Lubrani underscored that for six months hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people in Donbas have not been able to receive their pensions, have severely depleted their resources and need urgent assistance to get through the upcoming seventh winter of the conflict. Ms. Lubrani also called upon all relevant actors to facilitate the safe crossing of more people with critical needs.
The continued gradual re-opening of the ‘contact line’ is necessary to prevent further deepening of people’s vulnerabilities stemming from COVID-19-related restrictions, compounded by the ongoing armed conflict. As the COVID-19 pandemic is likely to continue for months to come, relevant actors should ensure a more predictable and systematic approach to the operation of the EECPs so that the crossing procedures are efficient, well-coordinated and realistic as well as clearly communicated to the population, to facilitate the safe crossing of the ‘contact line’ for all people with humanitarian reasons while minimizing the risk of COVID-19 transmission.