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Understanding the Current Ukraine Travel Alerts

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Credit: Аимаина хикари

Credit: Аимаина хикари

As the political tension in Ukraine came to a head this weekend, countries around the world increased the severity of Ukraine travel alerts.

Instability and protests began in November, 2013, regarding the government’s decision to suspend association with the European Union. Violence, including gunfire between protesters and police, escalated on January 19 and again on February 18.  There have been multiple deaths and hundreds of severe injuries.

The travel structure within Ukraine is somewhat intact. Commercial flights are operating in and out of Kyiv Boryspil Airport. However, LOT Airline is permitting travelers to change flights to Kyiv and Lviv before Feb.28 without penalty. On the ground in Kyiv, authorities continue to shut down both the Metro and inner city trains periodically, with little notice to travelers.

That’s infrastructure. What about travel safety? Let’s take a moment to look at what this political unrest means for travel to the region.

The U.S. State Department replaced its Travel Alert with a Travel Warning on February 18:

The Department of State warns U.S. citizens to defer all non-essential travel to Ukraine due to the ongoing political unrest and violent clashes between police and protestors.  U.S. citizens in Ukraine, and those considering travel to Ukraine, should evaluate their personal security situation in light of the escalating violence, particularly in Kyiv.  This replaces the Travel Alert for Ukraine dated February 18, 2014.  On February 20, 2014, the Department of State authorized the departure of all family members of U.S. government personnel from Ukraine.  While the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv’s Consular Section is open for public services, the Embassy’s ability to respond to emergencies involving U.S. citizens throughout Ukraine is limited.

The Department of State urges U.S. citizens who travel to Ukraine to evaluate carefully the risks posed to their personal safety, particularly in the capital city of Kyiv.  Since February 18, there has been a sharp escalation in violence between protestors and police, resulting in multiple deaths and hundreds of injuries.  The Ukrainian Security Services announced that they may use “extraordinary measures” to remove protestors from occupied areas.  Protestors remain in Kyiv’s Independence Square and have occupied several government buildings in Kyiv and other cities throughout Ukraine.  Groups of young men, popularly called “titushky,” have attacked journalists and protestors and committed other random acts of violence in Kyiv and other cities.  Since February 19, the use of gunfire against protestors and journalists has been reported.

Ground transportation is currently disrupted in Kyiv and some other parts of the country.  Since February 18, local authorities have shut down the Kyiv Metro (subway) for extended periods and cancelled inter-city trains on some routes with little or no notice.  Ukrainian authorities have set up roadblocks that restrict access on certain roads entering Kyiv and adjacent to protest areas.  Commercial flights to and from Ukraine are currently operating normally.

Both Canada and the United Kingdom have also issued strongly worded alerts, but with a more localized warning focused just on Kyiv. Canada advises a “high degree of caution:”

Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada advises against non-essential travel to Kyiv due to the deteriorating security situation.

DFATD has authorized the departure of dependents and non-essential staff from Kyiv, for security reasons. While the airport remains operational at this time, access to the airport may be restricted due to road blocks and security activities. Contact your airline to check the status of your flight before travelling to the airport.

If you choose to remain in Kyiv despite this advisory, maintain a low profile and remain indoors. You should also exercise a high degree of caution due to the prevalence of crimes of opportunity.

While you should remain off the streets of Kyiv, Canada does not have a nationwide alert. Foreign Affairs, Trade, and Development Canada explains:

There is no nationwide advisory in effect for Ukraine. However, you should avoid non-essential travel to Kyiv due to demonstrations, which have intensified since February 18, 2014. These demonstrations have disrupted transportation and blocked major intersections, including those in close proximity to the Embassy of Canada in Kyiv. There have been multiple incidents of violence associated with these protests, which have resulted in injuries and fatalities, including in areas adjacent to popular tourist sites and commercial centres.

Like Canada and the U.S., the United Kingdom has closed its embassy in Kyiv. The  Foreign and Commonweath Office cautions:

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all but essential travel to the city of Kyiv. If you’re currently visiting or living in Kyiv, you should exercise caution when out in public and avoid public demonstrations. The FCO does not advise against the use of Kyiv Boryspil airport as a transit stop providing you do not leave the airport grounds.

The British Embassy in Kyiv is temporarily closed to visitors. If you need to contact the British Embassy, please call +380 44 490 3660, or send an email to ukembinf@gmail.com.

Violent protests and demonstrations have been taking place in Kyiv and many other cities, some of which have turned violent. As of 23 February the situation in Kyiv and other cities has calmed considerably, but there remains the possibility that public protests could quickly again erupt into violence. You should remain vigilant in all regions, particularly Kharkiv and Donetsk.

Clashes between demonstrators and the police in Kyiv and elsewhere have caused fatalities. On 20 February there were unconfirmed, but credible reports of live ammunition being used which resulted in the deaths of at least 20 people. The demonstrations in Kyiv have mainly taken place around Independence Square, European Square, and St Michael’s Square, with some violent clashes near Parliament. There are credible reports of attacks in other parts of central Kyiv, especially at night. Some businesses in central Kyiv are closed. The transport system in Kyiv has resumed a normal service after being closed and airports remain open. However, you may experience transportation difficulties when moving around the country and should avoid any road blocks manned by protestors

You should avoid all demonstrations and large public gatherings.

Take care on the roads. There are a high number of traffic accidents, including fatalities. See Road travel

Beware of petty crime, especially in crowded areas and tourist spots or when using public transport. See Crime

Take out comprehensive travel and medical insurance before you travel.

The UK alert does put the warning in context noting that, in addition to a low threat of terrorism, most visits are without conflict.

Around 83,260 British nationals visited Ukraine in 2012. Most visits are trouble-free.

While the U.S. alert might appear overly cautious for extending its warning beyond Kyiv, the State Department did offer some explanation for cautioning against travel to all of Ukraine:

The situation in Ukraine is unpredictable and could change quickly.  Further violent clashes between police and protestors in Kyiv and other cities are possible.  The location and nature of demonstrations and methods employed by the police can change quickly and without warning.  Protest sites continue to draw large crowds.  U.S. citizens are advised to avoid all protests, demonstrations, and large gatherings.  U.S. citizens whose residences or hotels are located in the vicinity of the protests are cautioned to leave those areas or prepare to remain indoors, possibly for several days, while clashes occur.  U.S. citizens in Ukraine, particularly in Kyiv, should follow media reports closely as events develop.

For more information on travel safety, check out:

By Lily J. Kosner for PeterGreenberg.com

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