COVID-19-related movement restrictions in eastern Ukraine continue to exacerbate people’s vulnerabilities
Almost ten months after the 427-kilometer “contact line” in eastern Ukraine was substantially closed in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19, conflict-affected populations continue to pay the heaviest toll. Most people are still unable to reach the other side to visit their families and friends, access health care and other basic services. Vulnerable pensioners residing in the areas beyond Government control (NGCA) and registered as internally displaced persons in Government-controlled areas (GCA) have been unable to retrieve their pensions in GCA since March 2020, which is the main source of income for many.
Ten months of movement restrictions
On 21 March 2020, the “contact line” was sealed off to help curb the spread of the virus in the conflict-affected areas. Before the closure, people living in both GCA and NGCA had crossed the “contact line” an average of 1.2 million times each month to reach social and administrative services, visit banks, access health care and education, withdraw pensions and to maintain family ties. The number of individual crossings after 21 March 2020 until the end of the year represented less than 3 per cent of the level of crossings recorded in 2019 during the same period. The lowest number of crossings was recorded in April and May: less than 300 per month.
The re-opening of the “contact line” started on 10 June 2020 and coincided with the introduction of additional requirements for civilians willing to cross. The lack of consistency across requirements introduced by different sides coupled with the absence of clear and publicly available information led to people being stranded in the “grey zone” – the area between two sides of the same crossing point – or not being able to cross at all. While some of the requirements have been gradually eased, which resulted in an increase of monthly crossings from hundreds to thousands, the majority of crossings are only permitted in accordance with humanitarian exemptions* and restrictions related to the place of residence.
Attempts to improve the freedom of movement and access to services
Following the introduction of the ceasefire on 27 July, the Trilateral Contact Group** reached agreement on the opening of two new crossing points in Luhanska oblast. The opening of “Shchastia” and “Zolote” had been scheduled for 10 November but was indefinitely postponed due to ongoing disagreement on the mode of their operation (vehicular and pedestrian or just pedestrian). At the moment, only two of the five official entry/exit crossing points (EECPs) have been partially re-opened in eastern Ukraine: “Stanytsia Luhanska” in Luhanska oblast (daily) and “Novotroitske” in Donetska oblast (on Mondays and Fridays).
On a positive note, two service centres providing a wide range of administrative, banking, medical, legal and other services have been opened at “Shchastia” and “Novotroitske” EECPs. These centres are primarily designed to improve access to critical services, including administrative, banking and medical, for people crossing the “contact line” and those residing nearby. Similar service centres are expected to open at all EECPs in 2021.
Effects of the “contact line” closure on people
The drastic drop in the number of crossings of the “contact line” suggests that hundreds of thousands of conflict-affected people have had little opportunity to reach the other side since the introduction of movement restrictions. The restrictions on movement across the “contact line” has primarily impacted residents of NGCA, as prior to the pandemic, they represented 90 per cent of the people crossing to access pensions, social, medical and financial services and to address documentation issues in GCA.
The elderly have been among the hardest hit by the restrictions. According to reports, over UAH 2 billion has accumulated in the accounts of Oschadbank*** as COVID-19 travel restrictions prevented hundreds of thousands of NGCA pensioners from collecting their banking cards, which are needed to withdraw pensions and other social benefits. As of October 2020, more than 270,000 banking cards had not been picked up, and the validity of previously issued cards was once again extended until 1 March 2021. After ten months without accessing GCA pensions, which, together with social allowances received in NGCA, constitute the main sources of income for many, pensioners have been forced to find alternative ways to survive. They have been relying on only social benefits paid in NGCA, and through negative coping strategies such as depleting their savings, selling household goods, borrowing money or accessing their pensions in GCA through costly and legally challenging routes.
The “contact line” closure has also hampered access to health care for many residents of eastern Ukraine. According to the latest analysis of “contact line” crossings , over 10 per cent of the requests received by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) from civilians willing to cross have listed medical issues, including therapy and access to medication for acute or chronic illnesses, as the primary reason for crossing. Among them were oncological patients that couldn’t receive appropriate treatment in NGCA. 
People have also informed OSCE SMM that they couldn’t cross the “contact line” to obtain civil documentation, access judicial services provided by courts and notaries, take part in University admission exams, and to return to their place of residence, especially at the early stages of quarantine.
Movement restrictions in 2021
Severe restrictions of movement are expected to further negatively affect people’s vulnerabilities hitting NGCA residents particularly hard. It is anticipated that the “contact line” will remain substantially closed at least until summer 2021. Moreover, considering that COVID-19 will not retreat any time soon, economic recovery in eastern Ukraine seems unlikely in 2021. Communities are expected to remain dependent on support to help them regain their self-sufficiency and recover from the effects of the prolonged crisis as well as the pandemic. Despite an increase in the Government’s engagement in humanitarian response in GCA, national emergency response and preparedness capacities are likely to be overwhelmed by growing COVID-19-related needs. The restrictions on movement across the “contact line” will contribute to increased vulnerability, while the situation in NGCA is projected to be acute due to the limited capacity of hospitals and laboratories.
* The list of exemptions negotiated by the humanitarian community includes the necessity to respect the principle of family unity, in the case of death, or severe disease of a close relative as well as severe or chronic illness, which requires urgent medical intervention.
**The Trilateral Contact Group, which includes representatives from Ukraine, the Russian Federation, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, was established as a forum to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
***Oschadbank is the state bank administrating pension payments for pensioners registered as IDPs.
 OSCE SMM, Thematic Report. Checkpoints along the Contact Line: Challenges Civilians Face When Crossing. 1 November 2019 – 15 November 2020.