2021 in Review
Humanitarian situation in 2021
After seven years of armed conflict, humanitarian needs remained critical on both sides of the “contact line” – the 427km-long stretch of land dividing eastern Ukraine into Government- and non-Government-controlled areas (GCA and NGCA). The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated people’s needs and led to the introduction of severe restrictions on movement, decreasing livelihood opportunities, and pushing the already fragile health system to a breaking point. While the GCA significantly eased movement restrictions during the second half of 2021, requirements for crossing the “contact line” applied in NGCA continued to prevent people from enjoying greater freedom of movement and pose obstacles to accessing basic services, and social benefits and entitlements in GCA. Of the 2.9 million people estimated to be in need, 1.1 million people lived in the GCA of Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, including over 133,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), while over 1.6 million people resided in NGCA. In addition, 160,000 IDPs resided in other oblasts across Ukraine.
Among the most affected were older people living in NGCA, who used to cross to GCA regularly to access pensions. Ukraine continued to be one of the “oldest” humanitarian crises globally, with one in three people in need of humanitarian assistance aged over 60. In the meantime, humanitarian access remained seriously constrained, undermining the provision of principled humanitarian assistance, while the humanitarian crisis continued to be at risk of further politicization.
Additional challenges in times of COVID-19
The COVID-19 crisis had devastating effects on Ukraine, pushing the country to its limits. In November 2021, Ukraine experienced its worst wave of the pandemic to date, with a spike in cases and deaths. In mid-November 2021, the number of COVID-19 infections in Ukraine surpassed 3 million, and by the end of the month, over 85,000 deaths had been recorded, yielding a fatality rate of 2.3 per cent. In the conflict-affected areas, the pandemic has driven an already fragile health system to a breaking point. In November 2021, the occupancy rate of oxygen-supplied and intensive care unit beds stood at almost 71 per cent for Donetska oblast and 66 per cent for Luhanska oblast (GCA), representing the highest occupancy rates nationwide, with 208,000 infections recorded. The situation in NGCA was reportedly worse, with hospitals reporting to have exceeded their capacity with a case fatality rate estimated at 9 per cent.
As in many other countries, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Ukraine’s economic growth have been significant. The National Bank of Ukraine (NBU) reported a decline of 4 per cent in real GDP in 2020.
In conflict-affected oblasts, the unemployment rates have consistently been the highest nationwide since 2015, with 15.7 per cent in Donetska oblast (GCA) and 16.6 per cent in Luhanska oblast (GCA), compared with a national average of 10.3 per cent by the second quarter of 2021. Rural households in the areas close to the “contact line” were hard hit by the difficult economic conditions, with 24 per cent reporting spending their savings, compared with 16 per cent for the combined rural and urban areas in Donetska and Luhanska oblast (GCA).
The prevailing absence of a political solution continued to bring uncertainty to the future of millions of people on both sides of the “contact line.” The ‘Normandy Format’, including France, Germany, the Russian Federation and Ukraine, did not meet throughout 2021, with elections in Germany and the Russian Federation bringing further uncertainty over the future of the negotiation process. Prior to the State Duma elections held in September 2021, the Russian Federation expedited the issuance of the Russian Federation passports to residents of NGCA. Some former NGCA leaders ran in the elections, successfully becoming members of the Parliament of the Russian Federation. Most of the actions agreed by the ‘Normandy Format’ during their Paris Summit (9 December 2019) have remained pending, with the opening of new entry/exit crossing points (EECPs) along the “contact line” for civilian crossing, new areas of disengagement, de-mining, and the Minsk Agreement’s political provisions still under negotiation as of the end of the year.
Existing legal and policy frameworks
The Government implemented decentralization reforms in January 2021, resulting in a reconfiguration of administrative boundaries. The empowerment of the hromradas² administrative units at the community level through the decentralization of power, resources and responsibility has been viewed as a welcome development and an opportunity to strengthen communities and local development. In Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, responsibilities for public services and administrative functions were transferred from the raion level to local authorities at the hromada level and to the 19 Civil-Military Administrations (CMAs) along the “contact line.” Of the 103 hromradas in Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, 72 are in GCA. The decentralization process risked disrupting essential services in GCA during its transitional phase, with concerns over long-term prospects. Once past its current transitional stage, it is hoped to enable a solid functionality of new local governance structures and enhanced service provision at the local level.
A new whole-of-Government IDP integration strategy for 2021 through 2024 was adopted on 28 October 2021, when the Cabinet of Ministers issued Decree No. 1364-p, adopting the “IDP Integration and Medium-Term Solutions Strategy until 2024 and the Operational Plan (2021-2023)”.³ The Strategy is centered around six strategic aims, which outline challenges, key tasks and implementation indicators. All interventions shall flow from the policy, as opposed to the previous system of ad hoc responses. The focus of IDP integration will lie in medium-term solutions aimed at solving challenges in IDP housing, employment, social protection, access to education, health care, documentation and IDP participation in local decision-making.
The security situation declined throughout 2021, with a steady increase in the number of ceasefire violations despite the endorsement of the July 2020 strengthened ceasefire agreement. By late 2021, the number of civilian casualties had returned to pre-ceasefire levels, coupled with a general increase in tensions along the “contact line” and along Ukrainian borders. The number of ceasefire violations in the conflict-affected areas increased by nearly 370 per cent, resulting in increased civilian casualties and damage to civilian infrastructure.
Ukraine remained one of the world’s most landmine/ explosive remnants of war (ERW) contaminated countries, putting people’s lives at risk and impeding recovery, access to livelihoods and basic services. Ukraine ranked fourth after Afghanistan, Mali and Yemen in mine/ERW casualties in 2020. Civilian infrastructure continued to be affected by the conflict in 2021, with damage to water and gas facilities, as well as to schools. In 2021, schools were attacked at least 12 times, which is a disturbing reminder of the effect of the conflict on children. Water infrastructure was less frequently damaged than in previous years, yet disruptions in the water supply have continued to affect hundreds of thousands of people.