Women, children and the elderly are disproportionately bearing the devastating impact of the protracted conflict in Ukraine, which has left five million people in need of humanitarian assistance, senior United Nations officials said today, as they stressed the “grave and urgent need” to scale up international relief efforts.
Accessing vulnerable populations and lack of funding remain the two biggest obstacles to getting the help to where it is needed most, John Ging, Director of Operations, Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told a press conference in New York.
Fresh off a multi-agency visit to Ukraine and Nigeria, Mr. Ging, who was joined by Afshan Khan, Director at the Office of Emergency Programmes, UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), called his trip an “unprecedented mission.”
“We saw the first-hand consequences of conflict. Five million people are in need of human assistance, including 3.2 million who are highly vulnerable. Some 1.7 million people have fled their homes and over one million are internally displaced,” he said.
Mr. Ging described how temporary orders to restrict movement of people and goods across the conflict line were severely hampering efforts to get aid to those in need. Residents in affected regions of Donetsk and Luhansk have not received their salaries since July 2014.
Elderly homes, psychological centres and orphanages are in need of critical, even lifesaving supplies. Pensions are not being paid, further compounding the suffering of the elderly.
“The only means that communities have to survive at the moment is basically through their coping mechanisms which are being exhausted very quickly,” Mr. Ging warned, emphasizing that many health clinics have closed and medical personnel have fled.
Some 1.4 million people require health care and the centres that are open are struggling to care for the sick who were moved from damaged and destroyed clinics, in addition to treating those wounded from the conflict. In Donetsk, 77 out of the 350 health centres have been damaged or destroyed.
“We have witnessed and have also been told of real shortages of basic medical supplies such as cancer drugs, pain killers and even antibiotics,” Mr. Ging said, stressing that “all of this is leading to real human suffering.”
He warned of the long-term consequences of the protracted crisis: “No child has been vaccinated since this conflict began and again it’s the children that are the most vulnerable and are bearing the brunt here.”
Mr. Ging also cited the increasing danger of unexploded ordinance, as well as the fact that the banking system has been cut off again to non-government controlled areas – additional obstacles to delivering humanitarian support and paying staff salaries.
The UN already has a significant humanitarian operation under way in Ukraine, delivering medicine, blankets, food, hygiene kits, and household items to those in need. But more needs to be done, the officials stressed, noting that they only have five per cent of the $316 million sought for humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. “It is very clear to us that we have to scale up the international component to this response,” said Mr. Ging.
Expanding more on the plight of children in Ukraine, Ms. Khan said that 1.7 million of them bear the brunt of the emergency, including 140,000 who have been internally displaced. She warned that the displacement numbers are likely “much higher” because people, and particularly children, are hesitant to register as ‘displaced’ for fear of losing the right to the homes they fled.
“Children living in or forced to flee conflict areas have suffered enormous stress and have witnessed unimaginable violence,” she stated, as she held up two drawings made by children at an orphanage she visited during her mission. “These pictures are from children who are obviously traumatised from the fighting.”
The need for the most basic services is great as well, Ms. Khan said, recalling her visit to a bomb shelter where the water and sanitation situation was “very disturbing.” There too, the children were impacted psychosocially from the violence that they have experienced. But staying in a shelter without clean water and hygiene will also have a lasting impact. “Living in those cramped quarters is an experience no child will forget,’ she said.
UNICEF has boosted its vaccination efforts with the planned delivery of 4.8 million polio vaccines, the first batch by the end of April. Also, 200,000 families and children have been educated on mine-risk. Safely returning children to school will require the clearing of such unexploded remnants. In addition to expanding school access, the focus must be on children living in institutions, those with disabilities and those infected with HIV/AIDS, she added.
The visit to Ukraine and Nigeria comprised of 14 emergency directors from various UN agencies and international partners.