“All of a sudden, they just stopped issuing my pension”

In eastern Ukraine, 30% of people in need of humanitarian assistance are elderly, and 9% (180,000 people) have disabilities. These populations are especially vulnerable, and DRC legal aid teams are working to ensure they receive the benefits to which they are entitled. Here are a few of their stories.

Tetyana – Appealing for a Reliable Pension

63-year-old Tetyana lives in Hranitne, a small village located less than a kilometer from the contact line in eastern Ukraine. Tetyana moved here from the non-government controlled area when she could no longer live alone because of her visual impairment. She has been registered as an IDP here since 2015.

When her pension was unexpectedly stopped, Tetyana called the Pension Fund of Ukraine (PFU) immediately, and went to them in person with the help of her sister when their mobile department came to Hranitne.

“Before that, I was checked as an IDP. I passed the verification on time as I’m supposed to. There were no complaints at all,” she says.

Despite her making many written claims and calls, she was left without pension payments for 10 months and was never given a valid reason as to why her pension had been stopped.

As a last resort, Tetyana sought advice from the DRC-DDG mobile legal team in Hranitne. She had heard good things about one of the lawyers, Oksana Chekmeneva, and decided to try.

“She [Oksana] listened very carefully and looked into all the details. She didn’t miss anything. And she sent us the claim she had prepared by e-mail,” recalls Tetyana.

Oksana prepared an appeal to the pension fund in Kyiv, sent to the ombudsman, to the Ministry of Social Policy and to the Ministry of Finance. The appeal was granted and Tetyana was paid her full pension, including the amount in arrears.

Vasyl - miner - Ukraine

Vasyl & Ihor – Retired Miners Denied their Pensions

Of the 30% of people in need in eastern Ukraine who are elderly, many live in the non-government controlled area (NGCA), where they have their homes and kitchen gardens for subsistence farming. Accessing pensions or other social benefits is a painful and challenging process for them, as it involves crossing the contact line, hours of queuing in different weather conditions, and all the worries and stress connected with the journey.

Vasyl has worked as a coal miner most of his life, but when he applied for his pension in 2018, the PFU did not accept the documents confirming his employment history, as they were issued in the NGCA.

His pension was approved for only the minimum amount, despite the fact he had proof of more than 47 years of work - 19 of which were underground in a coal mine.

The same thing happened to Ihor, who spent 11 years working in the mines of Torez, in Donetsk Oblast. The PFU also refused to consider this experience because of the NGCA origin of the documents, and he received no pension at all.

After lodging a written complaint that made no difference, Vasyl’s son, Andrii, came across an announcement on the Internet for free legal aid at the Danish Refugee Council’s office in Mariupol. It was their family's last hope.

“He [my father] didn’t believe it was possible, because he is not used to these topics being dealt with fairly and in accordance with the law,” says Andrii. “I told him that chances are good and that they will help us, and we can accomplish it.”

Thanks to the European Union’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection support, DRC-DDG lawyer Oksana Chekmeneva prepared the necessary documents for Vasyl to file a lawsuit in the district administrative court in October 2019.

He won the case, forcing the PFU to recalculate his pension, and now receives 4.5 times the minimum payment he had been getting before. They do not have high hopes of receiving the missing amount from previous months in arrears, however.

“The pension fund does not pay the outstanding amount because there is no money,” says Andrii about the unjustly denied funds.

“He is hoping that he will receive the outstanding amount as well. But he is very happy that he least will have something to live off of.”

As for Ihor, he also sought help from DRC-DDG's legal aid team, and the lawyers worked on his case for nine months, even through the Covid-19 quarantine. When personal visits became impossible, Oksana submitted the request to the PFU online.

Ihor finally received his first pension -- and a nine-month debt settlement -- this April.

“I will definitely recommend the DRC-DDG lawyers. I have already advised my friends from the non-government controlled area to contact them,” says Ihor.

Legal Aid & Covid-19

Oksana was able to help Tetyana, Vasyl, and Ihor -- among many others --  thanks to the DRC-DDG free legal assistance programme, supported by the European Commission's Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid department.

Due to the Covid-19 crisis and related restrictions, the DRC-DDG legal team has been providing legal consultations remotely for the last month and a half.

Overall, 165 beneficiaries (42 IDPs and 123 other conflict-affected persons) have already received individual legal assistance. Nearly 46% of beneficiaries were NGCA residents and 32% of them live near the contact line.

About 27% of all legal issues brought to the DRC-DDG team are related to freedom of movement and problems with crossing the contact line caused by new restrictions. Beneficiaries also sought help with quarantine-related legal issues like civil documentation (15%), social payments (12%), housing, land and property, inheritance (10%), pension payments (10%), and business and employment (9%).