Understanding Ukraine's Internally Displaced Persons: Q&A with Viktoriya Sereda

December 20, 2019
Understanding Ukraine's Internally Displaced Persons: Q&A with Viktoriya Sereda

The issue of displaced populations remains a significant topic of discussion in today’s conflict-ridden world, but as HURI MAPA Fellow Viktoriya Sereda points out, the more specific issue of Ukraine’s internally displaced people (IDPs) as a result of the Donbas conflict is often overlooked in the broader discussion of migration, or, when addressed, is largerly misrepresented and oversimplified in its analysis.

As a sociologist, Sereda gathers her data primarily through direct engagement with the populations across Ukraine during which she employs semi-structured interviews as her primary, although not sole, methodology. She seeks to provide a more nuanced and multifaceted depiction of the conflict in eastern Ukraine and the IDP situation, in response to the oversimplified mainstream interpretation that the conflict is an “identity war on polarized identities and memory projects” rooted in Ukraine’s East-West regionalism. As a scholar with over two decades of experience, Sereda feels compelled to shed a different light on the issue by “giving voice” to as many sides of the story as possible.

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On Wednesday, October 30, 2019, Sereda shared her research at HURI's Seminar in Ukrainian Studies. Her talk, entitled, "A Home Stolen by War: Ukrainian IDPs and Their Search for Belonging” is now available on YouTube.

Following her talk, Sereda answered a few of our questions about her broader sociological research on IDPs and her work with MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine.

HURI: How long have you been working on the issue of IDPs in Ukraine? Have the aims of your research evolved over time?

Sereda: This was an experience that was personal before it became academic. With the escalation of violence and armored fights that broke out in the Donbas in spring 2014, my colleagues from Donetsk, with whom I had a long-term research relationship and friendship, had to leave their homes and move somewhere with their families. They came to my city, Lviv. My family and many of my colleagues tried to help and to make this process of resettlement less painful. As scholars, we could not avoid talking and reflecting on what was happening. As sociologists, we knew that it was an absolutely unpreceded case for the country. This is how the first project was born. Soon, one of my colleagues who moved from the Donbas – professor Oksana Mikheieva – became head of a newly established department of sociology at the Ukrainian Catholic University (UCU) and invited me to join the team. The issue of IDPs in Ukraine and migration, in general, became the focus of our departmental research.

The second reason for me was the “invisibility” of the IDP issue for European migration research and media discourse. By 2016 Ukraine had the largest number of IDPs in Europe and fifth largest in the world, but European media continued debates about the “migrant threat” in their own countries totally overlooking the Ukrainian case. Some tried to manipulate the situation, claiming that they accepted close to a million refugees from Ukraine (who in reality were legal and illegal labor migrants and never applied for refugee status) to avoid receiving Syrian refugees. Recent migration studies consider migration mostly as a cross-border phenomenon, and in doing so overlook the phenomenon of internally displaced persons, which is relevant for many societies. In addition, the IDP phenomenon is often associated with Asia and Africa, but not with Europe. Recently I was present at the inaugural lecture at the Immigration Initiative at Harvard, where the largest IDPs populations in the world were mentioned, but the Ukrainian case went unnoticed.

Finally, coming back to the discussion of Ukrainian society, since the 1990s I have been involved in a longitudinal research project comparing the regional differences of Lviv and Donetsk, and later several other macro-regions (each represented by its capital city). My team followed the evolutionary changes in identity projects and social loyalties in each region, and specifically in the Donbas beginning from 1994. I defended my dissertation and published extensively on this issue. When revisiting my research outcomes in 2013, it became clear that the war was not caused by internal processes but was rather imposed on the people of the Donbas, who found themselves in a social reality experiment that was manipulating loyalties and identities. This suggests that the regional specificity component that is often stressed was actually absent.

Today there is a huge political and academic debate about the nature of the Donbas conflict, where we are often confronted with the interpretation of conflict as an identity war based on polarized identities and memory projects as the main factor of conflict escalation. But for me, a scholar with over two decades of experience researching the region, this looks like a great misrepresentation and oversimplification. The evidence that my colleagues and I found lead to more complicated answers.

Therefore, the evolution of my research is driven by the necessity to represent the phenomenon in its entire complexity and to “give voice” to as many sides and groups with different experiences as possible.

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HURI: You are a MAPA Project Research Fellow at HURI – how are you using Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to visualize your research findings? How does it enhance your research?

Sereda: I have several levels of engagement with the “MAPA Digital Atlas of Ukraine project.”

First, as a Washington Post reporter wrote: “Regional diversity in Ukraine has been a political hot potato since independence in 1991.” I wish that foreign observers would sometimes bring a more nuanced view and greater cultural sensitivity to their reporting on Ukraine. The clichéd East-West or macroregional schema propagated by the Western media and sometimes academia fails to adequately reflect the complex reality of life in the country, for Ukrainian society is a historical, linguistic, economic and political mosaic of ever-changing design. The trend towards focusing on the regionalization of the country has also been reflected in the academic research agenda since the early 1990s. The main question is how to avoid depicting the country through stereotypical macro-regional divisions. Combating those stereotypical views and patterns of thinking is one of my self-appointed scholarly tasks.

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In 2012 I was invited to join a large, ongoing international research initiative, “Ukrainian Regionalism,” launched by the University of St. Gallen. The project proposes an interdisciplinary and transcultural approach to the question of regionalism in Ukraine, challenging simplistic conceptualizations and generalizations. As a result of our research efforts, a collective volume titled “Regionalism without Regions: Rethinking Ukraine’s Heterogeneity” appeared this year. However, what is even more important is that it produced a unique data collection (open to the academic community), which the HURI “Digital Atlas of Ukraine” (MAPA) project visualizes with GIS technology. This contributes to a reconceptualization of regionalism in Ukraine by presenting Ukraine’s historical, linguistic, religious, economic, and political mosaic in a visually clear and detailed manner. I contributed to the modules of the “MAPA” project that provide a comparative cross-regional analysis of identities and historical memory, language, and religious landscapes in today’s Ukraine. And this academic year I have been working on a new MAPA module that focuses on Crimea and the Donbas.

Furthermore, as the MAPA Project Research Fellow at the HURI, I have an opportunity to master those cutting-edge research technologies, which I later apply in teaching and in my own research. As a sociologist, I am working with the most recent sociological survey data and one of the challenges for me is discovering and later presenting different patterns (including regional ones). Of course, one can use cross-tables and statistical coefficients, but in some cases, geospatial visualization gives a much deeper understanding of the processes and serves as a powerful presentation tool.

HURI: Your research draws on data from a national survey in 2017 and from over two hundred interviews with people relocated from Crimea and the Donbas, conducted in Ukraine since 2014. How much of that is data already available and how much of this is your own fieldwork?

Sereda: I never saw myself as an “armchair” sociologist who would analyze ready-made data. For me, the more I can engage in the fieldwork, the better. I need to travel to different localities and regions and listen to people of different backgrounds because it provides a much deeper understanding of society, as well as the possible pitfalls of collected data. And, furthermore, it is during fieldwork that one usually gets the best insights for future analysis. In my research, I use data collected within the projects for which I was a part of the fieldwork team. In the majority of cases, I participated in the interviewing.

HURI: How accessible are datasets that have already been collected?

Sereda: Survey data are publicly available. When researchers work with surveys, they work with aggregated numbers and it is impossible to trace a particular respondent from the anonymized numeric data set. With collections of in-depth interviews, the situation is much more complicated. They are archived, but interviews cannot be simply placed into open access, due to the respondents’ protection requirement. Even if the research team does everything to anonymize them, if they were conducted in small locations or within closed groups (e.g. IDPs living in one camp) respondents’ identities might be revealed.

When sociologists work in a war zone or with a population coming from those territories, precautions must be even stronger. In many cases, we have to protect not only our respondents but also the interviewers’ physical safety when they work in those territories.

HURI: Generally speaking, how reliable is this kind of information?

Sereda: Speaking of reliability (both qualitative and quantitative data) one should understand that studying a society that is at war is not an easy task. It is very important not to pretend that collecting data there is the same as doing it in any other society. One should be very self-reflective and methodologically sensitive. When results are presented, especially to non-specialists or media, one has to explain all of the issues.

It is important to be able to hear and represent different voices, but there are many challenges: How do you reach respondents who have not registered, who live on non-government controlled territories, or who went abroad? How do you build trusting relationships, so they openly talk about their opinions and experiences? How do you account for their possible fears (of being arrested or tortured for politically sensitive issues in the non-government controlled areas (NGCA) of the Donbas or in Crimea), post-traumatic stress effects (respondents might have very traumatic experiences of being in captivity and tortured or surviving life-threatening situations such as shelling), and sensitivity and silence caused by their ideological position, experiences, or need to protect relatives in the NGCA?

It is also important to be sensitive and competent. There is a chance that scholars might be blind to certain topics because of the absence of similar experiences or because they are too greatly involved as a group member. I am very concerned about keeping tabs on my own biases, ignorance, lack of empathy, and other personal shortcomings. What are the solutions? First, to alternate the “insider” role with the “outsider” position. Second, to work with teams of highly heterogeneous personnel; although challenging, it helps to remove yourself from customary routines and gather new experiences and impressions.

In addition, reliability of results can be verified through getting access to more diversified groups of respondents, by comparison between projects or time series, or even by comparing with results obtained by other research teams. We call it triangulation.

HURI: Can you talk a little about your projects and research methodology?

Sereda: In my research, I use the qualitative data obtained from several separate studies of the Ukrainian IDPs, which gives an opportunity to look at the phenomenon from a chronological perspective and in greater complexity. The empirical work for my project was conducted in 2014-2018, which allows reflection on changes in IDPs’ situation after almost four years of conflict. In the first study (“Contemporary Refugees in Ukraine: Causes of Displacement, Strategies of Resettlement, and Problems of Adaptation” funded by the British Embassy and the Ukrainian Peacekeeping school, carried out in October-December 2014), semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with IDPs in government-controlled territories of Ukraine. Locations of research included big cities, chosen rather intuitively since at that early stage of resettlement, statistics and maps with regional patterns of IDP localization were not available. This research encompassed mostly those respondents who had the opportunity to choose their direction of migration (that is, those who migrated from Crimea in March-April and from Donbas in May-June 2014). Residents of the occupied territories who were evacuated as organized groups either by the state, international, or local voluntary organizations as a result of active military operations in the fall and winter of 2014-2015 were not covered by this research. The methodology of the semi-structured interviews was chosen to make an interview more flexible and allow respondents to integrate experiences that they thought were significant. It was especially important during our first project, because resettlement started just a few months before the beginning of our fieldwork and was understudied. For this purpose, a very open semi-structured method of interviewing was chosen and preserved during the later projects.

In the second study (Project “Displaced cultural spaces: current Ukrainian refugees” was as a part of international research “Cultural contact zones in Ukraine” funded by the Center for Governance and Culture in Europe, University of St. Gallen) in June-August 2016, both geographic scope and targeted auditoriums were broadened. According to the initial plan, respondents from both Crimea and the Donbas had to include two groups: 1) those who left home and stayed at the selected destination; 2) unsuccessful cases of resettlement (those who returned home). Due to the high level of fear, all respondents we approached in Crimea refused to talk if their story was to be recorded. Assuming that this might be a non-trust issue, the research team used four interviewers who were of Ukrainian, Crimean Tatar, Russian (from Crimea), and Russian (from Russia) origin, but in all the cases situation was the same. Therefore, interviews with returnees were conducted on the territories of the so-called “LNR” and “DNR” only. Interviews were conducted in the localities close to the contact line because by that time it became obvious that the majority of the registered IDPs from Donbas stay close to their homes. In general, very little attention is paid to those who resettle to other countries. Our project accounted for three destinations – Poland, Germany, and Russia – but those who left for other countries remain understudied; I plan to target this group in future research.

The next project (“Ukraine’s hidden tragedy: understanding the outcomes of population displacement from the country’s war-torn regions”) was initiated by the University of Birmingham team in cooperation with Ukrainian Catholic University. This time (2017-2018), not only were IDPs targeted, so were the receiving communities - representatives of NGOs, international organizations, central and local authorities in Lviv, Kyiv, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Dnipro, Zaporizhia and Mariupol oblast, as well as two focus groups with IDPs in northern oblasts.

Finally, the last project I was involved in (“Women’s experience of war” funded by the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies) had a specific focus that was part of my research interests since the early 1990s. It focused on women’s experience of war. In-depth interviews were collected with respondents divided into four groups: women who represent the civilian population residing close to the contact line on the territories controlled by the Ukrainian government (Severodonetsk, Syrotyno, Sloviansk, Horskoe, Baidovka, Kurakhovo, Pavlohrad, Starobelsk. Antratsyt, Sutohan) and on the non-government-controlled territories (Stakhanov, Donetsk, Iasinovataia, Luhansk, Roven’ki), each divided further into civilians and activists (participants of registered on non-registered voluntary organizations or military units).

idpHURI: What are some of the ways that IDPs in Ukraine deal with the resocialization and assimilation (or not) into their new communities?

Sereda: It should be stressed that Ukrainian IDPs do not constitute socially, politically, religiously, or ethnically homogeneous groups to be presented as one community.

IDPs from the Donbas, fleeing from a region associated with ethnic conflict and separatist movements, defined their belonging predominantly through the strong urban and professional identities that prevail over ethnolinguistic ones. In addition, they demonstrated a weak articulation of regional identity. Instead, they prioritized identification with Ukraine’s urban spaces over solidarity with the Russian-speaking group or their regional group. IDPs from Crimea structured their belonging through inclusive narratives, where references to local, regional (Crimea/Krimets), ethnic (Crimean Tatar/Ukrainian/Russian), and national (Ukrainian) communities were intertwined, paying much less attention to the social or professional groups. All IDP groups increasingly found themselves (re)asserting their new local identity.

The majority of IDPs who relocated to Ukrainian territories declared that their encounters of hierarchization and othering were mostly associated with experiences of apartment renting, job-seeking, and contracting with state officials, and were rarely discriminated against their language or cultural practices. Although the sites of the conflict are described in ethnic terms, as “pro-Russian rebels” or “pro-Ukrainian forces”, social distancing toward IDPs in Ukraine is not so much based on ethnic or linguistic differences as on questioning or limiting their Ukrainian citizenship rights and associated freedoms. Moreover, state and local administration officials are the main group that questions IDPs’ belonging to the community. According to their reports, the situation did not improve even by 2018. Many interviewed IDPs admitted that the requirement of registration (which aimed to help IDPs) actually created conditions for exclusion and discrimination, whereby IDPs had to prove their right to belong to the community. In addition, housing and low income continue to be the most pressing issues for the IDPs in Ukraine.

Have the trends of how IDPs approach their relocation changed over the course of the past 5 years? How do you see these trends changing in the next few years?

During the first years after the relocation, many IDPs from Donbas were suffering from double isolation. Given a short period of their stay in a new location and often limited number of contacts, they did not succeed to develop new extensive social networks, which would include other groups of local inhabitants. At the same time, in contrast to Crimean Tatars, IDPs from the Donbas were limiting their contact with their own group, which, as many migration studies show, might become a powerful source of support in a new destination. Some respondents declared that they restrain from communication with people from their own region being afraid that they might have different political orientations or war experiences, but later this situation improved.

At the same time, intensive relocation of the population brought new developmental and infrastructural challenges to many Ukrainian cities. Simultaneously it generated powerful support within society for the civil society in the form of informal networks and volunteer groups, which united efforts of local and displaced persons in an attempt to assist adaptation and new infrastructural challenges. Viewed on the micro-level, post-Euromaidan Ukrainian society is pervaded by an intensive network of individualized activities aimed at social change such as urban activism, self-defense units, sharing information and resources, building up common services. My research also demonstrated that smaller communities benefited from new services and businesses established with the help of dislocated representatives of the creative class.

I do not expect that trends will radically change in the following years, many IDPs declared that they already feel rooted in their new communities and do not have plans to return back even if the situation radically improves there. At the same time, some danger exists in the search for a solution to the ongoing conflict in the Donbas and attempts to reach a new “peace deal” by the Zelensky’s team; this might provoke intensive debates and deep divisions within Ukrainian society. Moreover, it might influence IDPs’ image in receiving communities.

HURI: Are there any particular goals that you have for the progress of your research while you’re at HURI this year?

Sereda: This academic year I am working on a new “MAPA” module devoted to the Donbas and Crimea. Recent political developments in Ukraine and the attempts of President Volodymyr Zelensky to move peace negotiations on the Donbas from a dead end brought the region back to the attention of politicians and the media. One can also observe growing disagreement in Ukrainian society about the possible solution of the conflict. Therefore, it is important to provide policymakers and researchers with interactive research tools, offering a more comprehensive picture of the region and its complexities.

As we discussed above, the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation in March 2014 and the ongoing military conflict over the Donbas region resulted in the continuous mass relocation of various groups of the affected Ukrainian population. This process had wide social, political and cultural implications for the country, challenging pre-existing senses of belonging, national identification, and citizenship allegiances. It also stimulated an unprecedented wave of social mobilization and the emergence of a new type of social activism and a new quality of civil society in Ukraine. The new MAPA module will target some of those issues, too, examining sociological survey data on attitudes toward Crimea and the Donbas, internally displaced persons, and war in Ukraine. Many of those questions resonate with my personal research agenda. During this academic year, I am also working on my book. HURI’s seminar was a good opportunity for rethinking my research results and preliminary conclusions after getting important feedback from the Harvard academic community.

Viktoriya SeredaViktoriya Sereda is an associate professor of sociology at Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. Her research focuses on urban sociology, memory studies, nationalism, and identity studies. In 2017/2018 she was a fellow of Wissenschaftskollege zu Berlin. Since 2016 she has worked on the “MAPA: Digital Atlas of Ukraine” project at the Ukrainian Research Institute, Harvard University. She is the author of a number of articles published in Ukrainian, Austrian, French, German, Hungarian, Polish, Russian, and Swiss academic journals.