Blog post by Lidia Kuzemska, PhD researcher in Sociology, Lancaster University.
A total of 1.44 million Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) have fled from Russian-occupied Crimea and from the armed conflict in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas since March 2014. The majority of these IDPs have moved from urban to other urban areas. Similar to IDPs in other countries, IDPs in Ukrainian cities are an invisible and hard to reach target group for service providers. Rural areas with a high concentration of IDPs also struggle to cope with an increased demand for state services. Both IDPs and host communities would benefit if IDPs are supported and integrated. Quick, reliable, safe and equal access of IDPs to state services is thus essential. The Covid-19 pandemic has made access to online services even more relevant, especially for vulnerable groups.
What is ‘State in a Smartphone’?
In June 2020, the Ministry of Digital Transformation of Ukraine proudly compared Ukraine to Elon Musk’s SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft. Inspired by the first commercially run manned space flight, Ukraine aims to be the first country in the world with legal use of digital IDs. This is part of President Zelenskyy’s ambitious ‘State in Smartphone’ program developed pro bono by Ukrainian IT companies also trying to add their page to (digital) history. This program combines digital identification, payment system, and data collection elements.
In practice, since its launch in February 2020, 10 million users of the ‘Diia’ (‘Action’) app have gradually accessed 9 types of digital identifying documents and a range of services. In particular, Ukrainians can obtain electronic versions of their internal ID, passport, driving license, car registration certificate, car insurance, student ID card, taxpayer’s number, birth certificate, and an e-IDP certificate. They can also change online their residence and voting addresses and pay any outstanding fines and fees to the state. After authorization in the app with a personal electronic signature or a BankID/MobileID, these digital IDs replace the paper-based originals. Driving, travelling, banking, opening of business are now available without physical copy of actual documents. During the pandemic, the ‘Vdoma’ (‘Act At Home’) app has monitored people self-isolating at home, including thousands of IDPs who were coming back from the occupied territories of Crimea and Donbas. So far, The Ministry of Digital Transformation digitized 50 most used public services and promised to make 100% of public services available to all citizens and businesses by 2024 through the ‘Diia’ (‘Action’) online platform and its app.
The program faced mixed reactions. Some expressed scepticism because of the lack of necessary infrastructure and fast Internet coverage. There were also concerns about the data protection safety and the country’s history of failed digitization initiatives. Others embraced the ‘State in Smartphone’ with optimism and hoped that it would help to increase the transparency of the state apparatus, speed up reforms and make Ukraine more competitive.
Does digitization facilitate access to state services for Ukrainian IDPs?
It depends. Provision of public services for IDPs in Ukraine is linked to their registration as IDPs. Without being registered in the electronic database of IDPs, displaced citizens have difficulties accessing social benefits, the renewal of documents, health care, and education. Even with a registration, IDPs are obliged to ‘check in’ in person at the Social Welfare Offices every six months to confirm their status.
There are different groups of war-affected Ukrainians which can be categorized based on their registered status and place of residence. The first group settled in government-controlled areas (GCAs) and registered as IDPs. The second group also settled in GCAs, but they have not registered in order to avoid bureaucratic hustle, corruption, and negative treatment, which are some of the major complaints for IDPs. These displaced Ukrainians do not receive state social payments available to registered IDPs. The third group are returnees:those who registered as IDPs in order to access their social payments and pensions but came back to live in their places of origin in the occupied areas of Donbas. Finally, the fourth group of Ukrainians are those who could not register as IDPs and remain in the occupied territory, who face difficulties accessing legal documentation such as birth and death certificates, school certificates, disability certificates, and social benefits entitlements.
With the new digitization program, IDPs in Ukraine ought to have access to all public services irrespective of their place of current residence, whether in government-controlled areas or in the occupied areas of Donbas and Crimea. In addition to ‘Diia’ public services available to all citizens, IDPs can now obtain e-IDP certificates. By the end of 2021, IDPs should be able to receive information about available aid and support, and join the e-queue for state-sponsored housing programs. There is still limited information about how beneficial these certificates are for the IDPs, and how many are using it. Since October 2020, the e-IDP certificate has operated in beta-testing. Once fully functional, it is intended to facilitate access to social support, employment, University admission, obtaining/renewing ID, banking services, health services, and simplify voting for the IDPs. However, it is not clear how many IDPs will choose to digitize their certificates. This is especially challenging for IDPs currently residing in the occupied territories, who first need to have a paper-based certificate that can then be digitised.
Differences in IDPs’ situations make the actual number of IDPs in Ukraine difficult to calculate. IDMC estimated that in 2019 there were 730,000 IDPs in Ukraine – half of the official number. The other half are the third group mentioned earlier: war-affected Ukrainians who did not resettle from their original places of residence in now-occupied Donbas, but who registered as IDPs to access state services and payments. In principle, the digitization of services can facilitate state provision of services to all categories of IDPs, especially to those who are unable to permanently move to the government-controlled areas. Discussions with Ukrainian mobile phone operators are ongoing on how to enable access to Ukrainian BankID/MobileID system in the occupied territories for the users (third and fourth groups) through the virtual SIM-card.
What are IDPs’ experiences of digitization so far?
There is surprisingly little reaction or discussions about the benefits of e-state services (e.g. e-IDP certificates) amongst its beneficiaries or relevant NGOs. As one online commentator noted: ‘The idea is good, but it has zero practicality considering the lack of Internet. For the elderly, it is completely out of space’. In online fora for IDPs, there is little enthusiasm regarding the e-IDP certificates since they are only available for those who already had paper-based versions and live in government-controlled areas. Moreover, digitization will hardly solve deeper socioeconomic challenges for IDPs.
Digital state services might be a good option, but not for all categories of war-affected Ukrainians. Firstly, at the moment, digital services can be set up and used only in the government-controlled territory of Ukraine. ‘State in Smartphone’ can certainly work for those who have reliable Internet access, nearby public infrastructure and tools to make ‘Diia’ work. Approximately 23 million Ukrainians (71%) are Internet users, with active users ranging from 97% among the 15-24 age group to 29% among people 65+. If you are an urban IDP, have your BankID/MobileID for registration, received your digital signature, and made sure all your documents are digitized correctly; ‘Diia’ will work for you as for any other citizen. However, it will only do so if the local state offices and businesses have the necessary infrastructure: QR code readers, licensed software and qualified staff familiar with the functioning of the ‘State in Smartphone’. This is not always the case in conflict-affected areas, let alone the occupied territories. With existing restrictions on travel between the occupied and the government-controlled territories, war-affected Ukrainians have low chances of setting up their e-IDP certificate or accessing other digital state services unless they have previously managed to receive their paper-based IDP certificate and obtain a BankID/MobileID.
Considering that the majority of Ukrainian registered IDPs are elderly people, usually pensioners, the ‘State in Smartphone’ depends heavily on access to smartphones and the necessary skill set. Around 55% of Ukrainians had smartphones in 2019, predominantly people under 30. Covid-19 has exposed the digital divide among Ukrainian citizens, in particular for senior citizens in remote and rural areas, who struggle to afford the basic mobile phone credit, let alone having fast broadband or mobile Internet to access digital services.
Recent experience of digital state services did not work as planned for elderly IDPs. Pandemic travel restrictions left 660,000 pensioner IDPs cut off from Ukrainian pensions they can only access on government-controlled territories. Left with little or no means, IDPs from the occupied territories risk travelling across the increasingly unsafe military checkpoints to receive their pensions. After crossing to government-controlled territory, IDPs either have to quarantine for 14 days with ‘Vdoma’ (‘Act at Home’) app or to take a Covid-19 test, usually at their own expense. Last summer, the ‘Act at Home’ app user experience of IDPs-pensioners completely failed. In June 2020, 32 people – Ukrainian citizens, who did not have smartphones, were not allowed to enter Ukraine from the occupied territory. They could not cross back to the non-government controlled areas either because of Covid-19 restrictions. Stranded in-between the two conflicting sides, people spent days camping outside. This absurd and desperate situation would not happen if Ukrainian pensioners from the occupied territories were not be required to register as IDPs to obtain their pension. More than digitization, the de-linking of IDP status from the right to pension would be of real benefit to the lives of war-affected Ukrainian pensioners. For now, it does not seem realistic that elderly Ukrainian IDPs will be extensively using e-IDP certificates or the ‘Diia’ platform. At the moment, the ‘State in Smartphone’ program will probably work for younger, predominantly urban IDPs who have the necessary skillset and access to infrastructure and technology.
Are there still potential benefits for IDPs from digitization?
Absolutely. First, it can help to fight corruption. IDPs’ interactions with the Ukrainian state have been difficult throughout the last seven years because of endemic corruption and bureaucracy. Ukraine is categorized as the most corrupt country in Europe by the USAID. Corruption has flourished in a murky water of institutional chaos, particularly during the displacement crisis. For instance, 14 different agencies provided services to IDPs in 2014-2015. The registration for IDP status was paper-based, lengthy, and often corrupt, occasionally sparking protests. It took three years and substantial donor funds for a nation-wide electronic database of IDPs to be established. Digital service provision could eliminate arbitrary and corruption-prone procedures for IDPs, mainly through the elimination of in-person bureaucratic procedures and long queues for the applicants due to limited capacities of service providers. However, to be able to access digital state services (e.g. an e-IDP certificate), an applicant currently needs to apply in-person for its paper-based equivalent in the first place.
Second, digitization can help to develop targeted service planning and delivery. For the state, municipal authorities, and humanitarian actors, the provision of online services can improve data collection and analysis of IDPs/returnees needs. The use of services, provision of disaggregated data on gender, age, place of residence, etc. are now considered of primary importance by the Global Compact for Migration to facilitate proper planning, monitoring and evaluation of policies. Municipalities can design targeted programs for IDPs in their areas based on information about the most requested services in particular areas. Not least, making state-IDP relations transparent can help to build trust. Digitization can tackle corruption by making aid distribution, provision of services and participation in relevant programs more transparent for all beneficiaries and stakeholders. However, the exchange of IDPs’ personal information between state agencies and local service providers should be monitored and regulated to avoid data breaches and negative consequences for IDPs.
Third, digitization is an element of durable solutions, a key criteria of which is non-discriminatory access to documentation and participation in public affairs at all levels on an equal basis with the resident population. Ideally, online access to citizenship rights should help IDPs to overcome limitations related to their physical displacement. In Ukraine, where many rights and access to state services have been tied to either place of permanent residence or to possession of a valid IDP certificate, online services equally available to all citizens might be a welcome step towards normal life for IDPs. Secure and accessible documentation is vital for IDPs’ self-reliance, both in displacement and in case of return. It validates their identity, allows equal access to services and uninterrupted mobility; it also certifies their property rights, voting, judicial protection, or special benefits granted on municipal or national level. However, displacement often results in paper documents being lost or stolen. These losses complicate IDPs everyday lives and hinder service provision. Digital documentation can help IDPs avoid the burden of costly and time-consuming bureaucratic procedures and the need to (often insecurely) travel to access services. However, it is not clear how IDPs themselves will adopt and adapt to the innovations.
What are the potential risks?
Considering the generally low level of trust towards state institutions, an effective communication strategy that would convey the benefits of digitization to Ukranian IDPs is essential for success in implementation. Furthermore, the broader context of digitization of governance and availability of Internet connection across the country are crucial. E-IDP certificates and digital services will only function if the whole ‘State in a Smartphone’ strategy is operational. There is an increased risk that targeting and profiling of individuals, IDPs in particular, might be misused. This challenge has to be addressed by the stakeholders beforehand. Good IDs for Ukrainian IDPs should make their relations with the state easier, faster and more secure, but IDPs should have access to reliable information before they choose to ‘go digital’, they have to be able to make free and informed choices about their data and have an opt-out option as well.
Privacy and data protection are another key aspect for success in implementation. Unlike other digital ID options for the displaced, where external providers are involved or blockchain technology is used, digital IDs in Ukraine are state-provided and state-controlled. There are significant security concerns regarding the user data protection of ‘Diia’ after a massive 900GB leak of personal information of Ukrainian citizens was sold online. The National Police denied it was connected to the breaches in ‘Diia’ platform, but it was not a convincing argument given the distrust of state institutions.
To sum up, if implemented properly, ‘State in Smartphone’ still has the potential to be an empowering tool for the displaced, who until now have been struggling with corruption and paper-based bureaucracy. Elimination of lengthy repetitive in-person procedures and greater transparency of all state databases through digitization have the potential to lower corruption in Ukraine, but its effects are yet to be supported by data. For IDPs, the digitization of state services has had mixed effects because of the diversity of war-affected populations and their particular situations. The ‘State in Smartphone’ program cannot solve these differences, but implementing policy that considers the real needs of IDPs can.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author/s and do not necessarily reflect those of the Refugee Law Initiative. We welcome comments and contributions to this blog – please comment below and see here for contribution guidelines.