Beyond the Headlines

Join UK for UNHCR for a series of exclusive briefings that go beyond the headlines. You will hear from refugees and UNHCR staff on the ground to learn about our operations in Ukraine, Afghanistan, and more.

© REUTERS/Alexander Ermochenko

Ukraine: Beyond the Headlines 6th July 2022​

The conflict in Ukraine has become the fastest-growing crisis in Europe. But thanks to gifts like yours, UNHCR is on the ground delivering vital support to those in need.

UK for UNHCR hosted the exclusive online briefing: Ukraine: Beyond the Headlines on Wednesday, 6 July 2022 to give a unique update on the rapidly evolving situation.

Our host Emma Cherniavsky, CEO at UK for UNHCR, was joined by special guests:

  • Annika Sjoberg, Senior Cash-Based Initiatives Officer for UNHCR
  • Karen Whiting, Assistant Representative Protection at UNHCR Ukraine
What are the needs of civilians in Ukraine?

The primary need for people in Ukraine is to have a sense of safety and security. People need to be able to move freely and to be able to decide when it is time for them to move away from areas of insecurity to find somewhere safe. 

This might be simply having a roof over their heads or longer-term options like renting or living with a host family. Around 1.1 million internally displaced people are living in collective centres but, similar to what we’ve seen in refugee-receiving countries in Europe, the majority of internally displaced people are living with host families. There has been an amazing outpouring of local solidarity and support that people in Ukraine have been able to call upon in their displacement.

As well as shelter, there is a wide range of other needs depending on peoples’ socioeconomic situations, for example, the need for support to meet basic needs and buy the essentials that many of us take for granted, such as food, toothbrushes, soap or clothing. 

Then many people have more complex needs related to their civil documentation. When people flee, most people think to make sure their family members are safe, but it is also really important to take your documents and not everyone has been able to do that. Having the correct documents is necessary for people to move within Ukraine, as there are security checkpoints within the country, or if they wish to leave Ukraine, so providing document replacement and renewal is crucial. Documentation is also important when planning for the future, for example, to be able to enrol children in school. 

Finally, another significant area is mental health and psychosocial support. Many people, in particular children, have experienced traumatic events and making sure that people, particularly children and young people, can resume some form of ‘normal’ life and play, sleep and do all the things children are supposed to be able to do is critical to enabling them to resume their lives and build their futures once the war is over.

With this wide range of needs and support, it is important to remember the more intangible aspects as well.

What are the challenges to delivering aid in Ukraine?

There are a number of challenges to delivering aid. One of the main ones affecting UNHCR’s ability to reach people is safe humanitarian access, particularly in the east of the country – given the security situation – but also for UNHCR teams working in the south around Odeska and Mykolaivska. 

Another challenge is reaching the most vulnerable people, including people with disabilities and older people, who might have limited mobility and perhaps lack adequate information about assistance or means of evacuation and ways of reaching safety. This is a particular issue in the east of the country, where there is a significant amount of older population. 

There are also people with specific needs, such as those with mental health or physical needs, many of whom are in institutions or may have been left behind by their families because of their mobility challenges. 

People in this situation may not be visible, so it is a challenge to identify them and reach them to be able to assess their needs. They may be in areas that are hard to access so we must keep good networks both with Ukrainians here and abroad to get information about where people are and their needs.

Why is UNHCR providing cash assistance in Ukraine?

Cash assistance has many upsides:

  • It is easier and more efficient than delivering goods from warehouses using heavy trucks, in the sense that we can simply transfer money;
  • It helps integration and can strengthen social cohesion with local communities, which can support situations where the governments might not be as open to refugees.

In Poland, cash assistance has helped UNHCR to negotiate rights for refugees and enable protection work, because when refugees enrol for cash assistance we can identify other needs, such as disabilities, mental health concerns, or other needs such as coping with an ill older relative. In this way, cash assistance opens doors to other essential protection work.

How does UNHCR make sure cash assistance reaches the right people?

Making sure that cash assistance reaches the right people is something that we take very seriously and we have many safeguarding steps in place. UNHCR developed a new cash policy in 2016 and redesigned its financial accountability system, which includes tracking every dollar given – who has received cash assistance and how much. 

We rigorously assess people’s needs and the risks involved before we can provide cash assistance, and enrol people biometrically so we can be sure who is who. This is especially important in a situation like Ukraine because of the large movement of people, to make sure that we reach as many people as possible and avoid enrolling people twice. 

The vast majority (80%) of cash assistance is transferred digitally, in other words transferring money via bank card, mobile apps or a prepaid card. This reduces the risk of miscounting or human errors compared with providing cash in hand. Finally, one of the most important things we have in place is post-distribution monitoring to see how the money is used, with systems in place to track this.

However, it’s important to remember that what we give helps but does not cover all of a family’s basic needs. To read more about Cash Assistance, please visit UNHCR’s website.

How does UNHCR coordinate with other organisations in Ukraine?

UNHCR has a large network of NGO partners in Ukraine and works with 12 national organisations to deliver programmes. Local partners are selected based on their well-established expertise, access and capacity to deliver amid challenging circumstances. The names and locations of these organisations are available on this map.

UNHCR also plays a significant role in inter-agency coordination to help avoid duplication of aid among NGOs, UN agencies and other humanitarian actors on the ground.

How does UNHCR ensure that unaccompanied children are taken care of and protected?

UNHCR alongside partners including UNICEF, have many processes in place to support all children and minors.

One of the unique aspects of this conflict is that Ukraine has quite a strong state social protection system. The ministry of social policy and social workers are still functioning in many areas, particularly in the west and the centre of the country, and where it still exists we are able to rely on this system. This means that when we identify unaccompanied children we refer them to the national system.

In areas like the east of Ukraine UNHCR works closely with NGO partners who specialise in child protection services to identify unaccompanied children and make sure they have so-called alternative care. This might be a foster family or other alternatives where children can get the care, education and most importantly the family tracing they need so that they can maintain family links and, where possible, are able to reunite with their parents, legal guardians or extended family members.

On both sides of the borders, one of the major focuses for our teams is to identify and refer unaccompanied children to the authorities, and that family tracing starts straight away. This also applies to other persons at risk of trafficking, such as women and girls.

UNHCR has also established Blue Dot centres in collaboration with UNICEF, which are safe spaces and one-stop hubs for protection and essential services. These centres have been set up in countries hosting refugees from Ukraine – including Poland, Romania, and Moldova – to provide key protection and social services including information, legal counselling, psychological support, identification and referrals for children, women, families, and other people and groups exposed to specific heightened risks as they flee the conflict in Ukraine. Blue Dots expand the assistance provided by national governments and are organised in coordination with state authorities and other partners along key transit routes and destinations to help children and families in need.

Are many people still trying to leave Ukraine, either temporarily or permanently?

People are continuing to leave the country and seek safety in western Europe, but there are also people crossing back into Ukraine. Right now, figures are showing that more people are going back to Ukraine than leaving, this might be to return and resume residence, to check up on or reunite with family members, or to collect documents or pensions.

UNHCR will continue to monitor the situation, which will alert us to any potential large-scale population movements that may result in onward movement into other countries.

The people who are in the east of Ukraine now are generally more economically vulnerable, older people or people with disabilities who perhaps don’t have the means or resources to make it across Ukraine and then cross the border into western Europe. But there are still evacuation trains and buses leaving Luhansk and Donetsk, so despite the movements back into Ukraine there are still significant population movements from the east of the country and we do need to remain alert because the situation can change very quickly, as we saw in February.

How does UNHCR make sure that team members are safe and taking care of themselves?

There are a variety of ways that UNHCR looks after staff. In Ukraine, UNHCR has made welfare counsellors available and a counsellor is available in some offices to provide support. There are also peer advisors and trained people within teams who can identify staff members who may need some more support. 

There are also more informal ways, such as reminding people to take time off and spend time with their families. And also ensuring that there is a great team spirit. For many national staffs, working to help support Ukrainians is incredibly important for them, but also making sure teams take time to do enjoyable things together and stay healthy.

In Poland, UNHCR needed staff who spoke Ukrainian but the situation was really tough for them. They wanted to help and contribute but had also fled their country a couple of weeks ago and were now sitting and talking through the stories of other displaced people. UNHCR provided mental health support from experts to help people cope with their experiences.

Looking ahead, how does UNHCR plan for the future? What are the biggest concerns and what can give us hope?

Like other humanitarian agencies, UNHCR developed contingency plans when the first warnings of conflict came from the international community and reviews planning and preparations in the region on an ongoing basis, in coordination with UN partners and government authorities. 

For now, the priority is to make sure that people are in a position to protect themselves throughout the long winter period. It might seem early to talk about winter, but it is really important to plan ahead to make sure that we have the resources to meet the needs that we know winter will bring.

There are challenges not only with getting materials and goods into the country, but also to ensure that we can continue delivering to hard-to-reach areas and support people when roads become more difficult to travel. Ukraine is a large country and the logistics of moving items across borders and within the country are quite incredible. It takes time to move emergency items and therefore it’s important to make sure that people have energy sources in case electricity and heating supplies become disrupted by the conflict.

In terms of hope, it is the people of Ukraine themselves, alongside the ongoing support and solidarity we have seen not only outside but also inside Ukraine. We have seen some families being able to move back to Ukraine, and we are trying to support them, and witnessing some really positive stories of resilience. We visited returning families last week and saw how capable they were of rebuilding their lives if they are given support.

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