While the “contact line” remains largely closed, residents of areas beyond Government control are forced to enter Government-controlled areas through Russia
The crossing through the “contact line” – a stretch of land that separates conflict-affected people residing in Government (GCA) and non-Government-controlled areas (NGCA) of eastern Ukraine – has been severely limited for over 18 months now. Temporary restrictions put in place by the Government of Ukraine and entities in control of NGCAs in March 2020 to contain the spread of COVID-19 have prevented hundreds of thousands of people from travelling across the “contact line” to access essential services and maintain social connections with the other side. Due to these restrictions, thousands of people have been forced to take longer, more expensive and legally challenging routes through the territory of the Russian Federation (Russia) to reach GCA.
While the movement restrictions have eased somewhat over time, the crossing of the “contact line” remains particularly challenging in Donetska oblast. People seeking to cross must obtain permission from the entities in control of Donetska oblast, but this permission is only granted in exceptional humanitarian circumstances and has led to a drastic drop in crossings within the oblast. In August 2021, the level of crossings through the only officially operational entry/exit crossing point (EECP) in the oblast, “Novotroitske”, represented 6 per cent (5,812 individual crossings) of the total number of crossings of the “contact line” during the month (90,751, with the majority of crossings in Luhanska oblast). In August 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic, the level of crossings through four operational EECPs in Donetska oblast represented 75 per cent of the total number of crossings. Overall, the number of crossings of the “contact line” in August 2021 was only 7 per cent of the August 2019 figure, when 1.3 million civilian crossings had been recorded.
Since the start of the pandemic, a gradual increase in crossings to/from GCA by NGCA residents was observed through the two crossing points located at the Russian-Ukrainian border: “Milove” in Luhanska oblast and “Hoptivka” in Kharkivska oblast. Between June and August 2021, an average of 206,181 individual crossings per month were observed through the crossing points at the Russian-Ukrainian border, with NGCA residents reportedly responsible for at least 30 to 40 per cent of crossings at “Milove” crossing point, compared with 89,870 crossings across the “contact line”. While there is no clear picture on the number of NGCA residents crossing to/from GCA through “Hoptivka” crossing point, it is considered to be at a similar level. Since the movement restrictions across the “contact line” are less severe within Luhanska oblast, the majority of crossings through the two border crossing points have reportedly been made by the residents of Donetska oblast, NGCA.
NGCA residents, primarily those residing in Donetska oblast, NGCA, have to travel almost 500 km to cross through “Milove”, the distance between Warsaw and Vilnius and two times the distance between Vienna and Budapest. They have to travel over 900 km to cross through “Hoptivka”, the distance between Rome and Bern and five times the distance between Brussels and Amsterdam. In comparison, the currently only operational EECP “Novotroitske” in Donetska oblast is located just some 40 km away from Donetsk, Donetska oblast, NGCA.
The cost of travel through crossing points on the Russian-Ukrainian border is also significantly higher compared with crossing the “contact line”, which ranged from UAH50 (US$2) to UAH600 ($23) before the introduction of COVID-19 restrictions. On average, NGCA residents spend UAH2,500-3,000 ($94 to $113) in transport costs and an additional UAH650-950 ($25-38) for a COVID-19 test to cancel mandatory self-quarantine for unvaccinated people or those who have been vaccinated with vaccines not approved by WHO for emergency use, which includes Sputnik V. The amount that the people have to spend for taking this detour is particularly challenging for NGCA pensioners, who have been receiving the so-called monthly social payments in NGCA amounting to some RUB8,900-10,000 ($117-135) for over a year and a half. Nevertheless, these people still choose to spend their savings to travel to GCA to withdraw their hard-earned pensions they rely on, especially during the upcoming winter months.
The situation was particularly dire during the application of administrative fines by Ukraine for entering GCA after crossing the uncontrolled part of the Russian-Ukrainian border. NGCA residents taking this detour had to pay between UAH1,700-5,100 ($64-192) for the first violation of crossing procedures and up to UAH8,500 ($320) for any repeated violation within a year. The situation was reported to be more severe at the “Milove” crossing point, where people had to spend up to 24 hours in a queue to be able to cross to GCA. Following the adoption of law No. 5478 on 29 July 2021, Ukrainians could be released from an obligation to pay a fine for the violation of crossing rules while the “contact line” remains largely closed if the crossing need corresponds with one of the humanitarian reasons listed in this law. This development has led to a significant decrease in the processing time, with no queues observed in the GCA direction since August, and a drop in a number of fines issued by the Ukrainian side, reportedly not exceeding a few per day. Disturbingly, lines of up to 28 hours have now been reportedly observed in the opposite direction (towards Russia).
Meanwhile, unlike “Hoptivka”, the “Milove” crossing point has not been designed to process large numbers of people and does not have adequate facilities to accommodate people waiting to cross. Originally intended as a regular border crossing point to serve local residents, today, “Milove” is used by trucks, civilian vehicles and pedestrians, yet, there is only one lane in each direction. Moreover, there is just one small room available where people can take shelter from bad weather. It has also been reported that the number of medical cases at the “Milove” usually ranges from three to five daily, with no medical assistance available directly at the crossing point.
Considering the increase in the number of people crossing “Milove” due to the limited operations of the “contact line”, the UN Refugee Agency and the Norwegian Refugee Council plan to start the reconstruction of the crossing point on 1 October to help increase its processing capacity as well as build additional facilities, including those that are currently unavailable (i.e., first aid point). The reconstruction is expected to take up to two months, while the crossing point will remain operational.
Worryingly, there have been reports that other crossing points at the Ukrainian-Russian border (i.e., “Yunakivka” crossing point in Sumska oblast) are encountering an increase in the number of NGCA residents crossing to GCA. Without the gradual easing of restrictions on crossing the “contact line”, which is currently unlikely due to the uptick in the COVID-19 incidence rate on both sides, it is anticipated that the number of NGCA residents entering GCA through crossing points at the Russian-Ukrainian border will continue increasing. At the same time, the most vulnerable categories of people in NGCA, who do not have enough savings to take this detour, will have to continue relying on meagre payments that they receive, which are hardly enough to cover the very basics. While taking this detour represents a temporary solution for some, without a reopening of the “contact line”, conflict-affected people’s vulnerabilities are expected to further deteriorate, and the already fragile ties between the once united community will likely continue to weaken.