Six months since Russia invaded Ukraine, five of ActionAid’s humanitarian aid workers reflect on their experiences working with refugees in and around Ukraine.
Protection for women and children, discrimination, social cohesion among host and refugee communities, and the approaching winter remain the main challenges to be faced in the coming months.
The emergency manager for the regional response
Triona Pender has been in and around Poland and Ukraine since the beginning of June, working with partners to support refugees who had to flee Ukraine. She says:
“Initially the response for Ukrainians in Poland was good, albeit slow to organise their admission to the social welfare system. However, refugees from non-Schengen countries, those with certain ethnic backgrounds such as the Roma communities, and those who didn’t have Ukrainian nationality were treated very differently to other refugees and discriminated against at border points and in the community. It took much longer to process their entry into Poland, even though foreign nationals who are fleeing conflict have an equal right to access and protection under Polish law.
“The current challenges (although they are ever-evolving) are around integration into Polish society (for those that want to stay); specific challenges for women’s rights and protection such as sexual and reproductive health and rights; finding employment (especially for migrants from third countries, for example from Africa); access to education (including deciding whether to continue in the Ukrainian system online or join the Polish education system, which makes a difference to refugees planning to return); the onset of winter and finding appropriate accommodation centres; and the trajectory of the conflict, which may lead to more refugees coming to Poland.
“The biggest challenge is that it’s very hard to predict what will happen and how long the conflict will last. Even if the conflict were to end in the next month, there is still a huge challenge in terms of reconstruction.
“More than half the refugees who initially crossed into Poland have now returned to Ukraine, but this situation may be reversed depending on the trajectory of the conflict and access to supplies to survive the winter in Ukraine. It’s very difficult to know what will happen.”
The women’s specialist
Atria Mier, a senior emergency manager and specialist on women’s issues, worked in Moldova, Romania and Ukraine between April and August. She says:
“In Moldova, although it’s one of the poorest countries in Europe, civil society mobilised really quickly through volunteers and grassroots organisations, and so did the government.
“However, racism has been assessed as a high-risk and widespread feeling throughout all the affected countries. The Roma population and non-white Ukrainians are the most affected by it. The humanitarian sector is no exception and services are not as inclusive as they should be, often placing Roma and non-white Ukrainians in a marginalised and difficult position.
“The fact that most asylum seekers are women and children also means a high risk of sexual exploitation and abuse. It is likely that more cases of sexual violence will start emerging in the mid-term (it’s never straight away because women tend to put their families’ and children’s needs above their own). Survivors will need all kinds of support, starting with community-based psychosocial support, legal aid, health services, sheltering and cash transfers or livelihood opportunities.
“Another burden for women is that remote education is not sustainable in the long term; it will cause both women and children distress, leading to mental health disorders. Mental health will be a tremendous and widespread need in the medium and long-term period”.
“Frontline responders – most of them local women – are already at the edge of their capacities, and donors either need to start providing core funding and strong support, or organisations will start to disappear and will no longer be able to provide basic needs to the most affected population.”
The youth specialist
Since late March, Matey Nikolov has been ActionAid’s roving youth leadership advisor in Romania and Poland, working with local partner organisations to provide support and opportunities for young people fleeing Ukraine. He says:
“Young people and youth-led movements are at the forefront of humanitarian responses addressing the negative consequences of natural disasters, political upheaval and armed conflicts around the world. This humanitarian emergency is yet another horrific example, where young women and men are mobilising and leading humanitarian initiatives.
“Involving young people, particularly those from the most affected communities, in co-designing decision-making processes and humanitarian interventions is key to ensuring programming and implementation are relevant for those most affected. All humanitarian actors should ensure that funding includes provisions for the safety, security, care and mental health of young people.
“However, there is an increasing risk of anti-refugee sentiment in Romania. Public opinion has been gradually shifting and becoming less supportive of the budgets and costs needed for an adequate and dignifying humanitarian response. This, sadly, is a phenomenon observed in other humanitarian crises that is now being amplified by exponentially raising living costs that further increase the strain on the most vulnerable populations. That by itself shows divisive notions of “us” and “them” and, over time, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to bridge that divide.”
The security specialist
ActionAid’s roving security advisor, Kiki Hynding Hansen, has been travelling between Romania, Moldova, Poland and Ukraine since March. She says:
“The response was overwhelming to begin with, and the local community stepped up in every country. One image which stuck in my mind was of a group of older ladies in Moldova at the border to Ukraine, standing cooking soup with vegetables they had been saving all winter to serve it to the people that were arriving at the border. Some of these people were arriving in bigger cars or with more luggage than these Moldovan women probably owned, but they showed such warmth and solidarity.
“I worry about anti-refugee sentiment. In Moldova and Romania, we’re already getting reports of this. At the same time, I’m also worried about the long-term consequences of internal displacement in Ukraine. Last time I was in West Ukraine I could see many more people living in the street than just a month ago. The trauma and lack of employment can bring a lot of very negative things with it that has long-lasting effects.”
“Safe access to those most in need in East and South Ukraine is concerning on many levels. With the winter coming I fear we will see this getting even more complicated given the weather conditions. This will likely also limit the humanitarian response in the rest of the country as roads become harder to pass. At the same time, it will limit internally displaced people in their movements to seek safer areas.”
The safeguarding specialist
Renée Wolforth has been working with ActionAid’s partners to assess the safeguarding risks for Ukrainian refugees in Romania, Moldova and Poland since April. She says:
“One of my main concerns if this crisis continues is around accommodation for refugees in the winter. The winters in these areas are quite harsh and given the lack of available permanent housing, this could become an issue if plans by governments are not implemented well or at all.
“It will also be important to see how things go in schools, where children are to be absorbed into school systems that might not have the funding or teachers to accommodate them.
“The social cohesion aspects will be vital to ensuring that resentment does not increase as those in neighbouring countries see money spent on Ukrainian refugees or perceive that more or better support is being given to them.
“This crisis has received more money, more media attention, and more sympathy than any other in recent memory. However, the attention of the public, media and governments is transient. When crises disappear from the headlines, this is exactly when things get worse for conflict-affected populations. Like other crises, when the headlines fade, the potential for harm to those we serve increases, such as gender-based violence, which includes trafficking and other forms of sexual exploitation and abuse, as the world is no longer watching.”
To date, we’ve worked with 40 partners to provide support to more than 600,000 displaced people in Poland, Romania, Moldova and Ukraine. The response has provided immediate humanitarian relief, including cash grants and food packages; helped prevent gender-based violence and trafficking; provided psychosocial counselling support; and strengthened the leadership of women and young people in crisis.