It is an armed conflict that has plunged Europe into a refugee crisis unprecedented in recent times. As fighting rages in Ukraine, thousands of civilians have been killed and more than 9.5 million people have been forced to flee their homes and seek refuge abroad since July 19. Children are paying a heavy price, with hundreds of them having been killed since February 24.
A new twist in the conflict has emerged with reports showing millions of Ukrainian refugees are returning to the war-torn country. While for some this may be a case of returning to check on family assets and visit loved ones before returning to their country of refuge, this may not be the case for others previously evacuated from hotspots such as Kharkiv and Chuhuiv. Many of these latest returnees said difficulties in some temporary safety shelters necessitated their return home despite continuing security challenges and deteriorating humanitarian conditions. This decision to brave the dangers at home points to possible gaps in humanitarian access and the provision of assistance, which must be assessed and fully addressed by all humanitarian actors in collaboration with all parties to the conflict.
On the other hand, in the five months since the start of the fighting, the crisis continues to set back the progress made in promoting world peace and sustainable development after the end of the Second World War in 1945. Putting The foundations of the United Nations have been shaken, testing the level of compliance with international humanitarian law and other agreed international peace instruments by many States. Nations have been divided, the global economy and financial markets destabilized, and global grain supplies and food security jeopardized.
The United Nations has warned of an escalation in the acute food insecurity situation affecting a record 193 million people in 53 countries. Disruptions in production and delays in deliveries of wheat, maize, sunflower oil and barley from Ukraine and Russia – which are among the main producers and exporters – are worsening global food security. The situation is one of the driving forces behind soaring inflation and rising food prices that are endemic to a high cost of living, as well as growing vulnerability in hunger hotspots where the millions of people affected are in dire need of food and nutrition. Support.
The bitter cost of this conflict cannot be compared to any other recent devastation in Europe. In the face of deeply complex peace negotiations, predicting the trajectory of this conflict and when it is likely to end is no easy task. The regrouping of forces on both sides has intensified the relentless shelling in eastern Ukraine, with airstrikes and shelling continuing across the country, leaving towns such as Sievierodonestk and Lysychansk in the Luhansk region battered. The Ukrainian government recently reported that every day more than a hundred Ukrainian soldiers are killed and more than 500 wounded in combat, a grim reality of the grave consequences of this conflict. Losing people at such an alarming rate, on both sides of the conflict, is not only frightening, but illogical and indicates that there are no winners in this war.
With these dark scenes, it will be a long time for the children and women who make up the vast majority of displaced people. Other vulnerable groups, including the elderly, people with disabilities and minority groups, are also bearing the brunt of a conflict they did not ask for. Disability rights organizations in Ukraine have previously warned that many children with disabilities may not survive the crisis unless more support and attention is channeled into improving their well-being. This follows reports that thousands of children with disabilities have been abandoned in institutions that are no longer able to care for them. They now live in atrocious conditions in Ukraine.
However, the stark reality of the matter is that social services have collapsed in some parts of Ukraine or are on the verge of collapse in other regions. And as a result of the conflict, families have been torn apart. Ukrainians continue to suffer heavy losses – loved ones, homes and other family properties have been reduced to rubble – as well as schools, hospitals and other public facilities. Livelihoods were decimated and the world witnessed the desolation of a once beautiful country and its people. What they need is continued support to survive other crises as part of the larger crisis, through a continuous supply of food, medicine, safe shelter, water, electricity and social services, including access to mental health and psychosocial support.
In particular, unaccompanied and separated children and minority groups without identity papers, such as the Roma community, are threatened by risks such as trafficking, exploitation, child labour, gender-based violence and sexual abuse inside and outside Ukraine. The option of keeping children safe in schools as a protection mechanism has become a luxury that Ukraine can no longer afford. Thousands of schools have been targeted and destroyed since February 24, casting a dark cloud over the education and future of over 4 million children remaining in Ukraine.
Scaling up the provision of health, social and essential services will help save lives, prevent unwanted pregnancies, ensure the safe delivery of newborns and appropriate care for mother and baby, as well as as the treatment of victims of sexual and gender-based violence. However, continued airstrikes and military encirclement are hampering these efforts by humanitarian actors. The need for a breakthrough in negotiating sustainable access to deliver humanitarian aid across Ukraine is long overdue. In areas where fighting is intense, mobile services cannot reach those in need or arrive when it is already too late. The United Nations and humanitarian partners have projected $4.1 billion to be injected into response programs to meet the needs of 17 million people inside and outside Ukraine. This includes $2.25 billion needed to meet the growing humanitarian needs of 8.7 million people in Ukraine through August 2022.
In surrounding countries hosting refugees, the risks to children and women are of concern. This required partnerships between governments and humanitarian actors to develop national capacities and enable the delivery of humanitarian assistance to more than 8 million refugees. One of the challenges affecting the effectiveness of humanitarian actions in some countries is the lack of registration data disaggregated by age, gender and disability to generate evidence that will effectively address the specific needs of all refugees.
On the other hand, visa restrictions for the longer-term deployment of some experienced humanitarian actors hamper sustained efforts as well as the ability to quickly reach populations in need in some areas.
Given the urgent needs, some international organizations that were not present in Eastern Europe before the crisis, have set up operations in various countries to help strengthen refugee response actions. Plan International now operates in Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Moldova, in partnership with local and international organisations. Speaking recently on the sidelines of an international conference on education organized by the Government of Romania in partnership with Plan International, Mr. Stephen Omollo, Chief Executive Officer of Plan International, said that a holistic approach was imperative to ensure the protection and well-being of all those displaced by the conflict.
He explained how his organization’s new operations, in all four countries, will help children, including adolescent girls, stay in school and provide essential services such as mental health and psychosocial support. Working with governments and other humanitarian actors, the organization also focuses on preventing and responding to sexual and gender-based violence, child protection in emergencies, sexual abuse and exploitation, and sexual and reproductive health and rights services. “This is an unprecedented crisis,” said Mr. Omollo, “we are here to make a difference by drawing on our vast experience in other refugee crises in countries such as Myanmar, India. Germany, Syria, CAR, Bangladesh and Mozambique. Our priority is to help build national capacity in the education sector, ensure increased access to essential services, cash and vouchers, and provide livelihoods assistance. We continue to strengthen the “One Plan humanitarian response” with the contribution of all members of the Plan Federation,” said Mr. Omollo.
Tsitsi Matope is Plan International’s Global Humanitarian Policy and Advocacy Specialist deployed to support the response to the Ukraine crisis in Poland, Moldova and Romania