Vulnerable groups against the background of a full-scale war: Specifics of the situation and recommended steps to accommodate the needs
The full-scale Russian aggression that began on February 24, 2022, has dramatically affected the entire Ukrainian society. The mere affiliation with the Ukrainian political nation and the fact of living on Ukrainian soil have become risk factors in the last four months, really threatening everyone’s life and health.
To us, it seems indisputable that the actions of the Russian army and the intentions of the Russian military and political leadership may be qualified as “genocidal” towards the entire Ukrainian nation. In the overwhelming majority of situations, the Kremlin executioners are completely indifferent to the ethnic origin, religious beliefs or native language of Ukrainian victims of their crimes.
However, Ukrainian society is not homogeneous. The risks and consequences of a full-scale war may vary for the majority of society and for the minority groups whose situation had been vulnerable before. These specifics should be taken into account, including in the process of planning the international community’s support for Ukrainian society and the country’s post-war recovery.
At the same time, despite the scale of challenges, the situation of accelerated development of Ukrainian society creates new opportunities. The candidacy granted to Ukraine by the European Union and the real prospect of accession to this organization create conditions for final elimination of rudimentary discriminatory practices against members of the LGBT community. The prospects of liberating the temporarily occupied territories gives hope for the return of a significant number of IDPs to their “small homeland” as well as for restoration of collective rights of the indigenous Crimean Tatar people.
An analysis of the particularities of the situation and challenges for various groups has been performed, and a number of recommendations have been developed as part of the Point 7 project (“Promotion of social cohesion in Ukraine”) in partnership with Vostok SOS and the Center for Civil Liberties with the support from the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative in Ukraine (ABA ROLI Ukraine).
The following groups were selected for the analysis: Jews; Roma; Crimean Tatars; internally displaced persons; LGBT+ community.
Obviously, these recommendations would become more specific and detailed only when the hostilities have stopped and the temporarily occupied territory of Ukraine has been liberated, while the medium- and long-term prospects for the country’s recovery become clearer. So far, it would seem reasonable to discuss the distant future only in the most general terms, concentrating instead on the short-term prospects.
For many centuries, the Jewish community was subjected to harassment on the Ukrainian territory in various historical situations, up to an attempt of total annihilation during the Nazi occupation. For historical reasons, as well as because of the global prevalence of anti-Semitism, the situation of the Jewish community has always been subject to scrutiny by international observers. The situation of Jews is often perceived as a litmus test not only of the situation of national minorities in the country, but also as an indicator of the overall human rights situation.
In this context, it is worth noting that, in recent years, Jews have not really been a vulnerable group in Ukrainian society. An eloquent illustration of this point is the fact that in 2019 an ethnic Jew was elected President of the country by a convincing majority. According to sociological studies and monitoring of hate crimes, anti-Semitism is not a problem on a scale that would indeed threaten the Jewish community in Ukraine.
However, certain specifics have determined the particular needs of this community during the full-scale aggression and, to some extent, have made it really vulnerable to certain aspects of the consequences of the full-scale aggression.
First, Jewish cultural and historical heritage has suffered during the hostilities. For example, both functioning synagogues in Mariupol were completely destroyed, and two buildings of synagogues operating in Kharkiv were damaged. (It should be recalled that religious buildings are offered a protected status under international humanitarian law, but, as estimated by the UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission, almost a hundred religious buildings were destroyed or significantly damaged in the first three months of the war, according to incomplete data). Holocaust memorials and Jewish cemeteries have also been affected by the shelling. In the light of Jewish religious beliefs about the ashes of the deceased, such cases are perceived very painfully in the community. However, that is not what makes the Jewish community vulnerable to infrastructure destruction.
There is no particular focus in the mere fact of causing damage to Jewish cultural heritage and religious infrastructure. So far Russian troops are known to have no intention of destroying it purposefully. Christian churches and cemeteries, etc., also suffer from indiscriminate bombing.
Still, minorities are always more vulnerable in this situation. In both of these examples, be it Mariupol or Kharkiv, the two synagogues represent 100 percent of the Jewish community’s functioning religious buildings. It is hard to imagine the degree of destruction, for example, in Kharkiv where 100 percent of Orthodox churches would be ruined (even today, relatively intact Orthodox religious buildings still remain in Mariupol). However, when it comes to one or two synagogue buildings, usually located in the relative center of the city, this situation is, unfortunately, quite possible (as demonstrated by Mariupol). In other words, in the case of the Jewish community, the destruction or inability to use the premises means the inability to lead a full-fledged religious life for the entire community. Given the fact that there are no more than a hundred active synagogues in the entire country, loosing even a few would mean that functioning of the religious Jewish community becomes problematic across entire regions as a result of hostilities. (The same applies to the Muslim community and other religious minority communities.)
Second, the socio-demographic structure of the Jewish community has its own peculiarities. Ukraine’s Jewish community is very “old” in terms of age structure when taken against that of society as a whole. This is due to a number of factors, including the fact that young and middle-aged persons have been emigrating more actively in recent years, as well as to relative stable ethnic identity of senior citizens. This distinctive feature was identified during the population census taken more than 20 years ago, but, as far as can be judged, demographic trends observed in the last two decades have rather contributed to the aggravation than smoothing of this feature.
Advanced age makes evacuation from the zones of hostilities and temporary occupation more complicated. In the event of evacuation, old age also affects subsequent successful integration into a new community.
Third, refugees — Ukrainian citizens of Jewish ethnic origin — find themselves in a special situation abroad. Unlike other Ukrainians, direct opportunities exist for ethnic Jews to be granted citizenship by another country (i.e., Israel as well as some others, including Germany). In Israel, in addition to passports, they would also immediately receive extra aid and support (the so-called “absorption basket”) during the first post-repatriation stage. Moreover, Israel and the Jewish community have deployed an infrastructure to assist Jewish refugees in moving to Israel directly from the Ukrainian borders and, in many instances — from within the country itself (which also includes availability of free transportation).
All this makes repatriation very attractive for Ukrainian Jews. According to the data published by the Jewish Agency for Israel (Sochnut — a structure that has been officially mandated by the Israeli Government to deal with repatriation issues), about 15 thousand persons repatriated from Ukraine in the first three months of the full-scale aggression (it should be recalled that, according to the census, about one hundred thousand Jews are recorded in Ukraine; naturally, there are many more Ukrainian citizens who are entitled to repatriation to Israel because of their origin; still, the number of those members of the Jewish community who have left the country is very noticeable).
The main thing is that, unlike the majority of Ukrainian refugees to Europe, these people would not return to Ukraine in all likelihood. These processes may entail a sharp decrease in the number of Ukrainian Jewish communities, up to the disappearance of communities in many cities of the country’s east and south.
Small Jewish communities, such as Krymchaks and Karaites (Ukraine’s unique autochthonous ethnocultural Jewish groups, originally Turkic-speaking), have generally found themselves on the verge of extinction because of their traditional residence in the regions that are now occupied or affected by active hostilities. The only Karaite synagogue (kenasa) existing on the mainland Ukraine and located in Kharkiv has been closed due to the departure from the city of the leader of this small community (obviously, because of constant shelling). Important Karaite cultural centers are located in the now occupied Melitopol and Kherson. These processes pose immediate threat to Ukrainian ethnic diversity and preservation of common cultural heritage.
It should be remembered that (Crimean) Karaites and Krymchaks in Ukraine are recognized as indigenous peoples, and the State is responsible for preserving their language and culture. After the war is over, concerted efforts should be taken to revive these small Jewish groups.
And, of course, the anti-Semitic propaganda disseminated by Russian media in the occupied territories should be taken into account. Senior Russian officials use hate speech against Jews. This is partly explained by their own sincere anti-Semitism, and partly — by attempts to use anti-Semitic moods in the society as an anti-Ukrainian propaganda tool (primarily in connection with the ethnic origin of Volodymyr Zelenskyi, the President of Ukraine). There is evidence that Jewish symbols cause aggression on the part of members of illegal armed formations subordinate to Russia (for example, in the process of the so-called “filtration” when trying to evacuate from Mariupol).
It is also worth mentioning that, on the eve of and in the years before the full-scale invasion, Russian special services initiated “waves” of anti-Semitic propaganda in social networks (to discredit the Ukrainian authorities) and provocative manifestations of anti-Semitic vandalism (in order to harm the image of Ukraine globally and to destabilize its internal political situation).
However, it seems that Russia’s anti-Semitic propaganda has a very limited impact on Ukrainian society, and its harmful consequences will be quickly overcome naturally after de-occupation.
– damage to, and destruction of the Jewish community’s religious buildings and other material and cultural heritage sites must be monitored and documented systematically; their value must be taken into account when assessing losses (and definitely integrated in the claims for material damage caused by the aggressor country);
– to reimburse the community’s costs of restoring infrastructure after the war, at least the restitution of religious property (buildings and other assets) illegally confiscated during the Soviet and Nazi occupation should be considered (this step would look logical in the context of an accelerated accession to the European Union, etc.);
– a special action plan should be designed to revive, preserve and develop both the languages of the indigenous Jewish peoples (Karaite and Krymchak) and Yiddish, along with a comprehensive plan to support Jewish culture as an integral component of Ukrainian culture in the future; the expediency of officially recognizing Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews (a community that was formed largely within this country) as indigenous people of Ukraine may be considered;
– to prevent depopulation of the community, additional incentives for the return to Ukraine of refugees of Jewish origin may be considered; other optional approaches to overall migration policy, encouraging representatives of the Eastern European Jewish community to move to Ukraine, may also be considered;
– to prevent dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda, amendments should be adopted to Article 161 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine, clearly articulating the concept of prohibited hate speech (being the speech that may be qualified as incitement to violence); systematic monitoring of hate speech in the country should be introduced.
These measures require substantial funding, administrative support, national and international advocacy, and, in order to address certain aspects, — expert support from the donor community and Ukraine’s international partners.
Crimean Tatars are a community that has been subjected to targeted persecution within the temporarily occupied Crimea for more than eight years. In recent months, repressive crackdown has also begun in the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporizhzhia and Kherson Oblasts where numerous community members reside. Abductions of and pressure on representatives of Crimean Tatar national organizations and individual activists are widely reported.
Despite the difficulties associated with monitoring the situation in the occupied territory, it may already be reasonably argued that the persecution of Crimean Tatars has a systematic and calculated nature.
In the occupied Crimea, where Russia has extended its laws and regulations in contravention of international humanitarian law, the pressure on the Crimean Tatar community has increased even more with expanding repressive capabilities since February 24.
It is precisely in this area that the support of the international community is particularly needed, since we are dealing with actions aimed at forced assimilation and characterized by cultural genocide. The international community should demand that Russia immediately implement the decisions of the UN International Court of Justice to stop the persecution of Crimean Tatar activists, restore free activity of the community’s civil self-governance institutions, renew the study of the Crimean Tatar language and teaching in the Crimean Tatar language at municipal educational institutions.
Regretfully, instances of hate speech towards the Crimean Tatars on the part of members of Ukrainian far-right movements are reported as well. It may be predicted that expressions of negative feelings may become even more active or even aggressive in the context of post-war decisions about the future fate of the Crimean Peninsula. This requires improvements to laws and regulations in the field of prevention of hate speech (described in greater detail above, in the chapter dealing with the Jewish community), and setting up a dedicated government agency in charge of hate speech monitoring.
– urgent adoption (by a resolution of the Cabinet of Ministers or by a presidential Decree) of the Regulation on the Representative Body of the Indigenous Crimean Tatar people, establishing this body and launching its operation; its active involvement in the development of measures to restore the rights of the Crimean Tatar people and indemnification of losses; official representation of the Crimean Tatar people’s interests, including in international courts of justice;
– introduction of a special-purpose program for the development of the Crimean Tatar language; strengthening the interactive component of educational programs, offering an opportunity for internally displaced persons and refugees from among Crimean Tatars to learn the language;
– stronger international pressure on the occupying state, demanding that an immediate stop be put to the persecution of community activists and that the opportunity for the Crimean Tatar people to satisfy their ethnocultural needs within the occupied territory be restored.
– auditing the damage inflicted by the occupiers to the Crimean Tatar people’s cultural heritage sites and Muslim religious sites during both the hostilities and the occupation; giving due regard to the need for indemnification when making pecuniary claims against the aggressor state;
– restoring the ownership by the Crimean Tatar community of at least those religious sites (buildings and other assets) that have survived to this day, but are not used for their intended purpose in the de-occupied territory of Crimea;
– involvement by the Crimean Tatar people, through the established institutions of representation, in the restoration and subsequent self-governance of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea.
Restoring the rights of the Crimean Tatar people, who are indigenous in Ukraine, would require significant and purposeful efforts on behalf of the State, civil society, the Crimean Tatar community itself, and international partners. This is particularly relevant for the territory of Crimea occupied by the Russian Federation since 2014.
The majority of Ukrainian Roma live in the regions far from the hostilities areas. However, large communities lived there before the start of the full-scale Russian aggression, mostly in the Donetsk, Kharkiv, and Zaporizhzhia Oblasts.
In the first days of full-scale hostilities, complaints were made about obstacles to evacuation faced by Roma in various regions and to the provision of humanitarian aid to displaced persons. Shameful instances of mob punishment of presumed looters by alleged representatives of the territorial defense were also recorded, during which the supposed offenders’ real or imaginary affiliation with the Roma community was asserted.
Despite all these phenomena not being systemic in nature, particular attention should definitely be paid to the non-discriminatory nature of aid delivery in order to meet the needs of those citizens who lack a full set of identity documents.
On multiple occasions, statements directed against the Roma community, including calls for violence, were posted in social networks. Amendments to criminal laws and regulations, which are mentioned above (in the “Jews” chapter), should change the situation and put an end to an unpunished dissemination of xenophobic statements made against members of the Roma community and to incitement to violence.
When planning the operation of social services, the traditional nature of gender role distribution in Roma families, which puts an extra burden on women, should also be taken into consideration. The presence of a significant number of families with children, including large families, in the Roma community should be borne in mind when planning and providing aid to displaced persons as well as when scheduling and organizing school education at the beginning of a new academic year. If distance education is used, particular attention should be paid to the provision of technical opportunities for children from Roma families to fully participate in the educational process and to blend organically in the event of relocation from a war zone or temporarily occupied territory.
– auditing the delivery of public services and aid for non-discrimination, paying particular attention to the specifics of Roma families’ needs in social care and to integration of internally displaced Roma families;
– an action plan (at least until 2023) should be developed and approved as soon as possible to implement the Strategy for Promoting the Exercise of Rights and Opportunities by Persons from the Roma National Minority in Ukrainian Society Until 2030.
The main challenge in the context of the full-scale Russian aggression is obviously the scale of the phenomenon. However, both the State and civil society have developed certain skills in providing adequate assistance to displaced persons over the past eight years, and have proven their ability to scale up this experience in the new environment.
Obviously, not all humanitarian needs have been covered, and it is the area where the international community should collaborate closely with the Ukrainian civil society. It should be noted that, according to an independent analysis, it is the Ukrainian specialized non-governmental organizers, rather than bureaucratic international humanitarian organizations, that are most efficient in the delivery of humanitarian aid to IDPs.
In the long run, should the hostilities drag on (or a pause occur, while some territories would continue to be temporarily occupied), the issues of providing IDPs with housing and employment will become a priority.
According to the analysis performed by experts of Vostok SOS Charity Foundation, the issue of IDP accommodation will grow particularly acute starting from August, as the school and kindergarten premises, where temporary IDP accommodation centers are currently located in the areas not affected by hostilities, would revert to being used for their intended purpose. Auditing the available residential properties and creating new accommodation opportunities is urgent. The most realistic way to address this problem would be to deploy a significant number of modular camps, which are more suitable for long-term residence than the temporary facilities used now. This, however, would require significant resources and mobilized efforts from all actors. The international community, particularly the donor one, should summon all available resources and intensify its efforts to respond adequately to this challenge. Only a few weeks are left before the new academic year starts and cold weather settles in.
Special attention should be paid to helping low-mobility and elderly persons as well as large families.
In the short run, international donors should continue to pay heed to urgent humanitarian needs. The significant number of displaced persons and the lack of resources in the Ukrainian State and civil society make international humanitarian aid to IDPs particularly critical.
As already noted, the most important thing in the mid-term is to address the housing issue.
In the long run, the issue of employment will gain special weight.
The issue of gender equality has become acute against the background of the large-scale Russian aggression, and it seems that the circumstances that would facilitate the advocacy of a number of specific issues, primarily concerning the equalized rights of partners in same-sex couples, are beginning to take shape right now (including in connection with the expected EU candidacy). In the context of large-scale hostilities, the situation is particularly intolerant where a spouse in a heterosexual marriage enjoys certain legal guarantees and opportunities (starting from inheritance rights and visiting the affected spouse at a medical institution, and ending with vital medical decision-making), whereas the partner in a same-sex couple lacks any such rights. Taking into the legal plane, in one form or another, the possibility of same-sex partnership becomes a priority task for advocacy, including internationally.
Regretfully, instances of aggressive attitude to representatives of the LGBT community, including physical violence, on the part of members of various law enforcement agencies, primarily those of territorial defense units, were registered in the territory controlled by the Ukrainian Government, especially at the beginning of the full-scale aggression, the reason for it being the lack of knowledge of laws and regulations, experience and training or being affected by stressful emotional state, etc., as well as the influence of homophobic propaganda spread by far-right groups.
Following the liberation of the temporarily occupied territory, the long-term effects of systemic homophobic propaganda, which was de facto waged by the invaders, should also be taken into account.
Sexual orientation and gender identity should definitely be added to the list of protected characteristics (next to ethnic origin, religious beliefs, etc.) as part of the above-mentioned amendments to the Criminal Code/
The adoption of formal recognition of same-sex civil partnerships is also undeniably on the agenda.
Rather than significant material resources, these changes would require political support, systematic and persistent advocacy, adequate media coverage, and expert assistance from the international community.
The full-scale Russian aggression threatens each Ukrainian personally, the Ukrainian nation as a community, and Ukraine as a state. Furthermore, it also inflicts significant damage to the diversity of Ukrainian society. In some ways, unfortunately, the damage has already become irreparable. But in any case, it should be taken into account when assessing losses, including for the purpose of prospective indemnification. Similarly, when formulating plans for the post-war reconstruction of the country, due regard should be given to the mixed character of Ukrainian society and the existence of vulnerable groups whose specifics should be borne in mind.
The diversity of Ukrainian society is an important capital that contributes to sustainability of our nation. Despite difficult circumstances, this diversity should be cherished and preserved.
The full-scale Russian aggression has become an existential challenge to the Ukrainian nation. At the same time, resisting this threat would give a strong impetus to addressing numerous issues that were brewing in Ukrainian society. Overcoming the discrimination of LGBT people, restoring the rights of the Crimean Tatar people, integrating the Roma community into society, preserving the Jewish community, and offering decent accommodation for internally displaced persons are the tasks that have been long relevant and may be tackled by Ukrainian society.