Ukraine

Situation Report
Analysis
People are waiting to cross the "contact line" in eastern Ukraine.
People are waiting to cross the "contact line" in eastern Ukraine. Photo: OCHA/ Yevhen Maloletka

A year in review: movement restrictions across the “contact line” in eastern Ukraine

On 22 March 2020, all entry/exit crossing points (EECPs) along the “contact line” were almost completely sealed off in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. This past year, only a fraction of individual crossings that had occurred before the nearly complete closure of the “contact line” was observed: 3 per cent of 1.2 million monthly crossings on average. The year-long restrictions on movement triggered by COVID-19 have left hundreds of thousands of people without access to social entitlements, basic services and have torn them from their families and friends. Residents of non-Government-controlled areas (NGCA), especially people over 60 years old, have been most affected.

Level of crossings across the “contact line”

In March 2021, the level of civilian crossings across the “contact line” in eastern Ukraine remained significantly below pre-COVID-19 levels: around 55,000 individual crossings compared with 600,000 in March 2020 and 1.2 million in March 2019. [1]

The lowest level of crossings was observed in April and May 2020, when only several hundred people were able to cross the “contact line” due to stricter movement restrictions in place. Following the partial reopening of two EECPs in June 2020 – “Stanytsia Luhanska” in Luhanska oblast and “Novotroitske” in Donetska oblast – the level of monthly crossings started to grow and reached over 80,000 in August and September 2020.

In October 2020, the EECP “Stanytsia Luhanska” was closed twice: first due to wildfire damage it sustained and then due to the deterioration of the epidemiological situation. Its closure resulted in a drastic drop in the number of crossings in October: some 21,000 compared with almost 86,000 in September. The limitation of allowed frequency of crossings to once per month in Luhanska oblast (NGCA) in September 2020 has led to an overall decrease in monthly crossings between November 2020 and March 2021, averaging 40,000 per month.

Overall, the movement restrictions are less severe in Luhanska oblast (NGCA) when compared with Donetska oblast (NGCA). In Donetska oblast (NGCA), only people included in pre-approved lists could leave and/or come back, while in Luhanska oblast (NGCA) anyone with residency in NGCA of Luhanska oblast could enter/exit once per month. People can also reach the other side if their reason for crossing falls under humanitarian exemptions negotiated by the UN and its humanitarian partners shortly after the partial closure of the “contact line”. The list includes the death of a close relative, the need for urgent medical intervention and the necessity to respect the principle of family unity, among others.

The varying severity of restrictions in the two NGCAs has resulted in a shift of the individual crossings’ distribution between the two oblasts. The pedestrian-only EECP “Stanytsia Luhanska” in Luhanska oblast has been responsible for 95 per cent of all crossings of the “contact line” following its partial closure, while Donetska oblast had been responsible for over 70 per cent of all crossings before the start of the pandemic.

Reasons for and frequency of crossing the “contact line”

Before the introduction of COVID-19-related restrictions, hundreds of thousands of residents of eastern Ukraine who had been “split” by the “contact line” had crossed to visit relatives, access health-care services, resolve issues with documentation, pensions and social payments, withdraw cash and check on their property.

The almost complete closure of the “contact line” in March last year has disproportionately affected the people residing in NGCA – 90 per cent of all people crossing before the introduction of movement restrictions – who are more reliant on accessing services and social entitlements provided in Government-controlled areas (GCA). Prior to COVID-19, there was large-scale and regular crossing of the “contact line” by about 20 per cent of the NGCA population.

During the year before the closure, the majority of people crossing from NGCA crossed every two months (around 70 per cent) or monthly (some 15 per cent) to resolve issues related to pensions and social payments (around 70 per cent), withdraw cash (some 35 per cent) followed by visiting relatives and obtaining documentation. [2]

During the year following the introduction of severe movement restrictions, the frequency of crossings from NGCA dropped along with the level of individual crossings: of the small number of people crossing, less than 40 per cent of people crossed every two months and less than 10 per cent monthly. [3] NGCA residents also crossed more often to visit relatives (some 60 per cent) and less frequently to withdraw cash (below 40 per cent) and resolve issues related to pensions and social payments (less than 30 per cent). [4]

The shift in the reasons for crossing is largely connected with the overall decrease in the number of crossings and the limited ability of NGCA pensioners to cross to collect and recover their social entitlements: prior to COVID-19, over 65 per cent of those crossing were elderly NGCA residents.

During the year of closure, GCA residents travelled to NGCA less frequently too, with the plurality of people (more than 25 per cent) indicating that they travelled once in two years, followed by 10 per cent indicating four times a year and 10 per cent every other month. By contrast, during the year before the closure, over 30 per cent travelled every month followed by 20 per cent quarterly and 15 per cent bimonthly.

Prior to the “contact line” closure, the majority of GCA residents (70 per cent) crossed to visit relatives, which remained similar during the year of closure. The second most common reason for GCA residents to travel before the closure was to check on their property (34 per cent). This reason has been less common following the start of the pandemic: only 16 per cent of people who have been able to cross.

Self-quarantine and testing for COVID-19

Since the partial reopening of the two EECPs in June 2020, entering GCA from NGCA has been subject to a 14-day-self-quarantine, which is monitored through a smartphone app called “Dii Vdoma” [Act at Home]. [5] Almost 60 per cent of all people crossing into GCA reported difficulties with installing and using the app. This requirement has been particularly challenging for the elderly, many of whom don’t own a smartphone or lack the knowledge on how to use one.

People crossing into GCA who don’t have a smartphone or are unable to download the “Dii Vdoma” are required to quarantine in a designated facility for 14 days or until they receive a negative polymerase chain reaction (PCR) COVID-19 test result. However, until January 2021, the PCR tests for COVID-19 were only available at cost, and therefore were too expensive for the majority of vulnerable people. Moreover, the observation option hasn’t always been available to people due to lack of beds in designated medical facilities.

Currently, the self-quarantine may be terminated earlier subject to a negative result of a PCR test and, from 5 January 2021, a COVID-19 antigen test. In January, the Government of Ukraine made free-of-charge express antigen body tests available at the EECP “Novotroitske” and since March at the EECP “Stanytsia Luhanska”. There have been reports that at “Stanytsia Luhanska”, the testing capacity is insufficient to meet demand: tests are available only for around 10 per cent of the average of 1,000 people who are crossing per day.

There have also been reports about the lack of information on free testing and testing facility’s opening hours. Moreover, there are reports of people trying to take advantage of the current crossing situation by joining the COVID-19 testing queue to sell their place in line to those who actually need it. Others offer their help with installing the “Diia” app to vulnerable people in exchange for money.

Upon entering Luhanska oblast (NGCA) from GCA, a two-week self-quarantine at a place of residence remains mandatory. In Donetska oblast (NGCA), people entering from GCA must undergo a two-week observation in a designated facility unless they pay for an express test which, if negative, allows them to self-isolate at their place of residence.

Impact of movement restrictions on civilians

The year-long COVID-19-related restrictions have left hundreds of thousands of people without access to social benefits, basic services, and separated them from their families and friends, with NGCA residents affected most. It is estimated that at least 360,000 NGCA pensioners who regularly crossed to GCA to collect their pensions have been unable to do so over this past year. Since March 2020, over UAH11 billion (US$396 million) has accumulated in pension accounts. [6] Due to movement restrictions, NGCA pensioners have been forced to find alternative ways to survive, including relying more on NGCA social payments, depleting their savings, borrowing money or accessing their pensions through costly and legally challenging routes.

Even though two service centres, providing a range of administrative, banking, legal and other services, have been opened in GCA near two EECPs, very few people benefit from them as the possibility to cross the “contact line” remains very limited. COVID-19 restrictions have increased the isolation of NGCA residents from the rest of Ukraine and have had a negative impact on people’s mental health. Unable to visit their families and close ones for over a year, without any definite prospects of improvement, people report feeling trapped.

Essentially, for people whose reasons to cross don’t fall under the “humanitarian exemptions” or who can’t confirm the permanent place of residence in GCA/NGCA, respectively, the only option is to transit through the Russian Federation. This travel, however, is much more costly, exhausting and legally challenging option, and is not viable for most elderly and vulnerable people. Furthermore, even though the Russian Federation (which keeps its borders closed for most foreigners) still permits residents of NGCA of Luhanska and Donetska oblasts to enter and transit to NGCA/GCA, there have been reports of the introduction of new limitations, making this route less accessible. For instance, people with Ukrainian biometric passports are allegedly no longer allowed to enter the Russian Federation, while it is still allowed for Ukrainians with older Ukrainian passports containing a stamp confirming their permanent residence in one of NGCAs.

Movement restrictions in 2021

Severe restrictions of movement are expected to further exacerbate people’s vulnerabilities, hitting NGCA residents even harder, and deepen the rift between the once united community. It is anticipated that the “contact line” will remain substantially closed at least until summer 2021. Chances are that the “contact line” won’t reopen until the end of the year.

The recent increase in the level of hostilities also increases fear that the conflict might reignite, causing additional hardship for the already conflict-exhausted people. In these circumstances, people’s access to humanitarian assistance and the humanitarian community’s ability to reach people in need wherever they reside remains critical until a peaceful solution to the armed conflict is found.

Timeline of COVID-19-related movement restrictions

21 March 2020: The Government of Ukraine imposes temporary limitations on crossing the “contact line”, allowing only people with a permanent place of residence in GCA to enter. The entities in control of NGCA of Luhanska and Donetska oblasts, in their turn, suspend all civilian movement across the “contact line”.

March - April 2020: Both sides introduce “humanitarian exemptions” for crossing the “contact line”, which include (i) the death or severe disease of a close relative, (ii) severe or chronic illness that requires urgent medical intervention, (iii) the need to respect the principle of family unity, etc. [7] People who were able to cross the “contact line” on the above grounds were required to self-quarantine for 14 days. Even though the NGCAs mirrored the approach, only several hundred people were able to cross the “contact line” in April and May 2020.

10 June 2020: Two crossing points reopen from the GCA side: “Stanytsia Luhanska” in Luhanska oblast and “Novotroitske” in Donetska oblast (both operate daily).

12 June 2020: The EECP “Stanytsia Luhanska” reopens from the NGCA side in Luhanska oblast (operates daily).

22-25 June 2020: The EECP “Novotroitske”/“Olenivka” reopens from the NGCA side in Donetska oblast (open only on Mondays and Fridays).

25 September 2020: Luhanska oblast (NGCA) limits the individual crossings to once per month for people with permanent residency in NGCA of Luhanska oblast.

15 October - 10 November 2020: The EECP “Stanytsia Luhanska” is temporarily closed from the GCA side due to a deterioration of the epidemiological situation.

10 November 2020: Two new EECPs in Luhanska oblast – “Shchastia” and “Zolote” – open from the GCA side, while all earlier operational EECPs (five) also reopen from the GCA side. Due to ongoing concerns about the epidemiological situation on the NGCA side and deadlock in political negotiations, only two EECPs operate on a limited basis from both sides: “Stanytsia Luhanska” in Luhanska oblast and “Novotroitske” in Donetska oblast.

5 January 2021: The Government includes an antigen test to the list of tests that allow early termination of mandatory self-quarantine for those arriving from NGCA. Free of charge COVID-19 tests are made available at EECPs from the GCA side for Ukrainian citizens.

1 March 2021: The first-ever UN-organized convoy passes through the new EECP in Luhanska oblast, “Shchastia”, which remains closed for civilian crossing to date.

22 March 2021: The Government decides to exclude people who travel from NGCA to get vaccinated in GCA from mandatory two-week self-quarantine.

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[1] According to the State Border Guard Service of Ukraine

[2] UNHCR Ukraine and Right to Protection, eastern Ukraine checkpoint monitoring (2020) and eastern Ukraine checkpoint monitoring (2019)

[3] UNHCR Ukraine and Right to Protection, eastern Ukraine checkpoint monitoring (October-December 2020) and eastern Ukraine checkpoint monitoring (January-March 2021)

[4] UNHCR Ukraine and Right to Protection, eastern Ukraine checkpoint monitoring (2021)

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ukraine Ombudsperson, facebook.com/denisovaombudsman/posts/5364601880279184

[7] The list of exemptions negotiated by the humanitarian community includes the necessity to respect the principle of family unity, death, or severe disease of a close relative as well as severe or chronic illness, which requires urgent medical intervention.

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