The war unleashed by Russia has changed every Ukrainian. Many people were forced to flee their homes, some were destroyed by an enemy missile, others lost their jobs, peace of mind and their way of life. We all dream of victory and peace.
But while our defenders are defending Ukrainian land from Russian invaders, many of our compatriots in the IDP status are facing a number of problems and challenges. Ukrinform spoke with Iryna Vereshchuk, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Reintegration of the Temporarily Occupied Territories of Ukraine, about this, their support from the state, evacuation from dangerous regions, and plans for the reintegration of the temporarily occupied territories.
We have about 4.8 million registered internally displaced persons
- Iryna Andriyivna, according to the latest data, how many Ukrainians have official and unofficial IDP status?
- We have about 4.8 million registered internally displaced persons. There are about 2 million more unregistered.
- Some of them had to leave their homes for the second time. How many people are there?
- There are more than 1 million of them. That is, since 2014, they have left the territory of ORDLO [the temporarily uncontrolled territories of Luhansk and Donetsk regions] and Crimea, and after February 24, 2022, they were again forced to leave their homes and move to other regions.
- What problems do IDPs most often face? Where do they live?
- In the first weeks after resettlement, the main challenges are: housing, documents, financial assistance, basic necessities, medical care, as well as kindergartens and schools for children.
After the initial adaptation, the issues of housing and employment arise.
As you settle in a new place, one of the most important issues is the problem of uncertainty of the future and the need to plan your future life. This is where professional psychosocial assistance comes in handy.
And, returning to housing: internally displaced persons mostly rent it. However, approximately 200,000 IDPs live free of charge in places of compact residence, equipped specifically for IDPs.
- You once said that building modular towns for internally displaced persons is less effective than placing them in places of compact settlement. How many such CSs are there in Ukraine today? How many people live there? What are the general living conditions?
It is better to invest in the repair of existing dormitories than in the construction of modular towns
- In Ukraine, 25 modular towns of various capacities have been built. They are home to about 5,000 people. In principle, modular towns are a good solution. But not for the number of IDPs we have since the start of the full-scale war. It is unrealistic to quickly build them for hundreds of thousands of people in a short time, neither financially nor logistically. They also require high maintenance and service costs.
Therefore, it is better to invest in the repair of existing dormitories than in the construction of modular towns. There are many such and similar facilities in Ukraine. So after repair, they may be quite suitable for temporary accommodation of IDPs.
- According to your observations, how quickly do IDPs adapt, find jobs and housing?
I always urge able-bodied IDPs to find a job: maybe not in their specialty, maybe for a slightly lower salary, but go to work
- It depends on the person. It varies from person to person. On average, it takes six months. The government, local authorities, international humanitarian operators - we are all trying to help IDPs to the best of our ability. But a lot really depends on a person's resilience and internal motivation.
It is about their determination to build their lives based on new realities. The factor of professional psychological support is also important. When we talk about employment, it is not only about money, but also about full-fledged socialization, which is sometimes even more important than money. That is why I always urge able-bodied IDPs to be more active in finding a job: maybe not in their specialty, maybe for a slightly lower salary, but to go to work.
- What should those who have not been able to find ways to support themselves, to rent a place to live, for example, do?
- Of course, not everyone can cope. Especially since almost half of the IDPs are children, the elderly, the sick, and people with disabilities. Obviously, it is more difficult and often impossible for these people to solve their problems on their own. To support such citizens, there are resources from the state, international humanitarian organizations, Ukrainian and foreign charitable foundations, etc.
- Do you have any information that many Ukrainians are returning home after spending the winter abroad?
The return of people is a very positive signal for the recovery of the economy and the country as a whole
- Yes, many Ukrainians have been returning from abroad recently. Since February, the State Border Guard Service has been regularly declaring a positive daily migration balance, when more people enter the country than leave it.
In the run-up to winter, many Ukrainians followed the government's advice and spent the winter abroad. In doing so, they helped our energy sector get through that difficult period. But we withstood all the challenges, and for many, this became a motivation to return.
In general, the return of people is a very positive signal for the economic recovery and the country as a whole.
- Do you often receive requests for help from Ukrainian citizens who have found refuge abroad? With what questions or problems?
- Yes, the Ministry of Reintegration is approached by our citizens who have found refuge abroad. We work a lot in Poland and Slovakia. There are about two million of our compatriots in Poland now.
The questions and problems are different: documents, living conditions in places of compact residence, humanitarian aid from international organizations, medical response. Many issues concern children, especially orphans and children with special needs.
Basically, the Ministry of Reintegration and I, as Deputy Prime Minister, are required to ensure that the authorities of the host country pay a little more attention to this or that problem.
Many people also apply for documents to return to Ukraine. Last year, the Coordination Headquarters for the return to Ukraine of our citizens who were forced to leave the country as a result of the hostilities was established specifically for this purpose.
- You have repeatedly emphasized that the evacuation of citizens to safe regions of Ukraine continues. How much longer do the authorities plan to evacuate people (will they have enough money to help people)? Will it last until the war is over?
The evacuation will last as long as people need it
- The purpose of evacuation is to save the lives and health of civilians. This is especially true for vulnerable categories: children, the elderly, the sick, and people with disabilities. The evacuation will last as long as people need it. The government has all the necessary resources to help people: transportation, accommodation, humanitarian and financial aid, and psychological support. And most importantly, we have gained tremendous experience over the past year.
- Where exactly are children being forcibly evacuated from the active hostilities?
- Forced evacuation of children took place from 21 settlements in Volnovakha, Bakhmut and Pokrovsk districts of Donetsk Oblast, as well as from settlements on the contact line in Kupyansk district of Kharkiv Oblast. In Kharkiv region, the forced evacuation of children has been completed. In Donetsk region, the forced evacuation of children and their parents from 7 settlements in Bakhmut, Kramatorsk and Pokrovsk districts of Donetsk region is still ongoing.
- How many have been evacuated? How many more need to be evacuated and where exactly?
- Since the beginning of the forced evacuation, 271 children have been evacuated from the frontline settlements of Donetsk and Kharkiv regions.
But the work continues. According to the Donetsk Regional Military Administration, there are still children in the settlements of Bakhmut, Avdiivka, Krasnohorivka, Keramik, New York, and Pivnichne.
- Did parents agree to take their children out immediately, and what arguments did they give for refusing? What can prevent you from saving children's lives?
- The vast majority of families adequately perceive the recommendation to leave dangerous areas. There are some situations when evacuation teams have to convince parents. But these are isolated cases, when it is more about irrational or domestic motives in the spirit of an apartment or a garden. But they see the realities around them: the destruction, the dead and the wounded. The instinct of self-preservation and common sense prevail. You ask: what can prevent us from saving children's lives? The government actually passed a decree on the forced evacuation of children precisely to ensure that no one and nothing prevents us from saving children's lives.
It is hard to listen to the stories of children who have returned from deportation. About moral and even physical abuse
- The Ministry of Reintegration is working to return Ukrainian children illegally deported to Russia. How many has your agency managed to return?
- To date, we have managed to return 373 children.
- What do they tell you about their return? What was Russia's attitude towards them?
- It is difficult to listen to the stories of children who have returned from deportation. They talk about moral and even physical abuse. Sometimes you wonder: how do children endure all this?
That is why they need to be cared for when they return to their homeland. And here psychological rehabilitation is one of the priorities. We, as a government, cooperate with the Coordination Council for Child Protection and Safety, headed by Andriy Yermak.
There are many confirmed facts of Russians using civilian Ukrainians - children, women, and the elderly - as human shields.
We also work with the Office of the First Lady, which is in charge of the All-Ukrainian Mental Health Program, where one of the main areas is psychological rehabilitation and psychosocial support for children. Upon request, we try to help with household issues, documents, medical problems, and educational issues.
- Recently, there was information about the intentions of the Russian Federation to organize group tours of foreign children to Crimea. Some are offered a simple vacation, others - various cultural and educational events. You have called on the authorities of different countries to make sure that they do not send their children on vacation to the occupied peninsula. Do you think that even children can be used by the Russians as human shields?
- They can. There are many confirmed facts of Russians using civilian Ukrainians - children, women, and the elderly - as human shields. And they can use foreigners, especially children, not only as human shields, but also as sacrificial victims.
That is why we have recently appealed to foreign governments to take additional measures to prevent the illegal stay of their citizens in the temporarily occupied territories. This is especially true for the stay of foreign children in Crimea. And especially now, when the Armed Forces of Ukraine are conducting offensive operations and working to liberate the temporarily occupied territories (TOT), foreigners should not be there.
By the way, the cynicism of the occupiers is that they invite children from other countries to Crimea, but take their family members out. Because they realize the danger...
- Would you like to say something to the representatives of the aggressor country regarding the return of little Ukrainians?
- We have addressed them both publicly and in writing. We have repeatedly told them that the illegal transfer of children is an international crime, that it has no statute of limitations, that they will all be punished, that their terms of imprisonment will be long. They know all this, but they probably don't believe it. And in vain... Because after the war, we will be finding and punishing them all for a long time. All of them - both big officials and small ones. And not only officials. Everyone involved in the illegal transfer of Ukrainian children, especially orphans.
My focus is more on the return of status children - orphans and children deprived of parental care. In the case of children deprived of parental care, it is still a little easier - they have parents and relatives. But status children can only rely on the state and volunteers.
- Iryna Andriyivna, you have repeatedly recommended that compatriots in the TOT not take Russian passports. There is information that the Russians are forcibly mobilizing men who have taken a Russian passport to the TOT. In this way, the enemy is trying to replenish manpower losses through forced mobilization in the temporarily occupied territories. In your opinion, how can those who agreed to take that passport avoid death on the battlefield? What do you advise them to do?
- Yes, I always recommend our people in the TOT not to take passports, not to cooperate with the occupiers, and to leave the TOT for the government-controlled territory if possible. If you need to take a Russian passport to leave the TOT, then take it and leave: through Crimea, through Russia, through third countries. But leave.
If it so happened that a person was forced to receive a Russian passport and was mobilized into the enemy army, then, first, they need to find a way to make themselves known. In particular, you can inform the National Information Bureau under the Ministry of Reintegration at 16-48 about the fact of forced issuance of a Russian passport and the fact of forced mobilization. Secondly, it is necessary to avoid participation in hostilities and the use of weapons against the Armed Forces of Ukraine. Thirdly, it is necessary to find an opportunity to surrender as soon as possible.
- I know that you have repeatedly called on Russia to open humanitarian corridors for Ukrainians, because most of them want to leave for the territory controlled by our country. Is there still no reaction?
I repeat my recommendation to the residents of the TOT: leave the temporarily occupied territories if possible
- No, the Russians are disregarding international humanitarian law. In the first months of the full-scale war, we managed to provide humanitarian corridors. But later, the Russians stopped opening humanitarian corridors because they decided to use the TOT residents as human shields and as a political justification for the occupation. So now they are trying to hand out passports and want to hold elections. But we will not give our lands to anyone. The Armed Forces of Ukraine are working. So, I repeat my recommendation to the residents of the TOT: if possible, leave the TOT.
- The Ministry of Reintegration pays state financial assistance of UAH 100,000 to Ukrainians released from Russian captivity and their families. How many people have already received this money in 2023? Is there enough money to continue these payments?
There was no analog in the world for such a humanitarian crisis. But we survived and gained invaluable and unique experience
- Last year, 1,448 Ukrainians released from Russian captivity received a one-time allowance, and 462 families were also paid annual assistance.
In 2023, 529 people released from captivity have already received it. And 707 families of prisoners received annual state aid.
There are enough funds.
It should also be noted here that a person receives UAH 100,000 not only upon release, but also for each year of captivity.
- From the very beginning of the full-scale invasion, international organizations have been supporting Ukrainians with humanitarian aid and financial payments. How have you observed this assistance changing? What is being provided more: money or humanitarian aid?
- Yes, last year international humanitarian organizations helped us a lot. This year they are helping us too. But now we are working more systematically. Both we and they learned a lot last year in terms of humanitarian response. The humanitarian crisis that began in Ukraine in the first months of the full-scale invasion was unprecedented in the world. But we survived and gained invaluable and unique experience.
If we talk about the ratio of types of aid, both last year and this year, about 30% of the aid is cash, and 70% is humanitarian aid: food packages, hygiene products and other essentials, kits for minor housing repairs, etc.
- In early May, the Cabinet of Ministers adopted a resolution "On Coordination Centers for Civilian Support." When will they start working? In what format? What issues will people be able to address them with?
- Coordination centers have already been established in all regions. They are starting to work and setting up processes.
Their task is to provide support and assistance to the population affected by the war. Their areas of work include veterans, families of military personnel, children, internally displaced persons, people with disabilities, and the elderly.
Their organizational infrastructure will include coordination centers at regional military administrations and resilience centers in local communities. People will contact hotlines or resilience centers in communities.
The mission of the coordination centers and their local resilience centers is to provide comprehensive support: psychological support, legal assistance, humanitarian response, medical care, housing, social protection, etc.
The coordination centers will have access to central and local authorities, international humanitarian organizations, volunteer and charitable groups. The task of the staff of the coordination centers and resilience centers will be to help people through the effective coordination of relevant resources, services and administrative influence.
- The Ministry of Reintegration is actively discussing ways to reintegrate Crimea. The National Security and Defense Council has developed a new strategy for the de-occupation and reintegration of the peninsula. What are the priority steps, in your opinion, that Ukraine will have to take after it expels the enemy from its territory? During the occupation, many people have changed their position towards our country. How should we fight for them, for their favor (softly or harder)?
There should be no Russian influence on the peninsula. This is the key to our security
- Yes, the reintegration of Crimea will not be easy. It will be more complicated than the reintegration of other temporarily occupied territories and will require a separate approach. And, perhaps, special legislation. Regarding toughness and softness: we must be tough in our approaches to restoring Ukrainian state power and in matters of justice and fairness. And we have to be flexible in matters of economic and humanitarian reintegration. Most importantly, we must not repeat the mistakes of the past. There should be no Russian influence on the peninsula. This is the key to our security. Here, we rely on new personnel: young, motivated and competent. They will do everything right.
- Could you share with our readers your secret about where you get your strength and optimism from? What advice do you have for Ukrainians to keep their faith in victory alive? How do you keep the rhythm?
- The fact is that because of my work, I communicate with people who have suffered as a result of the war. Displaced persons who have lost everything and evacuated from the active combat zone or from the temporarily occupied territories. Or those released from captivity, including women. Or civilian hostages who were returned from enemy captivity. Or Ukrainian orphans whom we returned from Russia. All of these people have obviously seen a lot of things that an ordinary person can hardly even imagine. So I say to myself: if they, even children, have endured and survived everything, then every Ukrainian man and woman can do the same. So, let's believe in ourselves and in victory!
- Thank you for the conversation.
Olena Sobko, Kyiv