After three days of intense clashes across areas in parts of Ukraine, the number of civilian casualties and damage to critical infrastructure are growing, and the United Nations and its relief partners are working day and night to care for the injured, the Security Council heard on Monday during an urgent meeting on the humanitarian situation in the country.
Addressing the Council, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi highlighted that despite the evolving situation in Ukraine, UN humanitarian organizations and NGO partners have remained in the country and are “now caught up in this deadly conflict.”
“They are still striving to deliver help to people in need whenever a small window of relative security allows for humanitarian aid to be distributed…often in extremely dangerous circumstances,” he said.
“The responsibility that you have to ensure that peace and security prevail over power struggles and narrow national interests has never been as urgent and indispensable a task as it is tonight. If you fail – if we fail – it might be too late for us all.” https://t.co/tIlIG6VSUa— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) February 28, 2022
‘Not even scratching the surface’
However, he lamented, “we are not even scratching the surface to meet the needs of Ukrainians.”
“The situation is moving so quickly, and the levels of risk are so high by now that it is impossible for humanitarians to distribute systematically the help Ukrainians desperately need”.
Mr. Grandi echoed the Secretary-General and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator’s urgent call to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to grant humanitarian access to those impacted by war.
“A failure to do so will compound the already extraordinary levels of human suffering”, underlined the High Commissioner.
Hundreds of thousands flee
In addition to the grave situation inside Ukraine, hundreds of thousands are seeking refuge in neighbouring countries.
“They need safety and protection, first and foremost, but also shelter, food, hygiene and other support; and they need it urgently,” said Mr. Grandi.
While some 520,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, he pointed out that that figure has been “rising exponentially, hour after hour, literally, since Thursday”.
“I have worked in refugee crises for almost 40 years and I have rarely seen such an incredibly fast exodus of people – the largest, surely, within Europe, since the Balkan wars,” the UN refugee chief attested.
He said that over 280,000 had fled to Poland; 94,000 to Hungary; nearly 40,000 to Moldova; 34,000 to Romania; 30,000 to Slovakia; tens of thousands to other European countries; and “a sizeable number” to Russia.
Commending the Governments of receiving countries, Mr. Grandi acknowledged the daunting challenges of admitting, registering and meeting the needs of those fleeing, and raised serious concern that further escalation would drive up further the number of arrivals.
“We may have just seen the beginning”.
Expressing gratitude to the Governments of Ukraine’s neighbours as well as “ordinary Poles, Hungarians, Moldovans, Romanians, Slovaks and citizens of other European countries,” he commended their “extraordinary acts of humanity and kindness…so needed in times of crisis”.
The senior UN official urged European Union (EU) nations and other Governments to continue providing bilateral support to Ukrainian refugee-receiving countries as UNHCR, its UN partners, and national and international NGOs, scale up efforts.
“We encourage host countries to avail themselves of our support and expert advice as they address the situation and uphold their international obligations,” he said.
Potentially millions will flee
“Unless there is an immediate halt to conflict, Ukrainians will simply continue to flee,” said Mr. Grandi. “We are currently planning…for up to four million refugees in the coming days and weeks”.
A rapid increase would be a huge burden for receiving States, which cannot be left alone to shoulder the responsibility.
“I, therefore, welcome the support expressed by many European States at yesterday’s European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council, to activate the Temporary Protection Directive for people fleeing Ukraine,” he said.
If activated, it would provide immediate, temporary refuge in the EU and facilitate responsibility sharing for people fleeing Ukraine among EU member States.
We mustn’t fail
Tomorrow, the UN will launch a humanitarian Appeal for Ukraine – for activities both inside and outside the country.
“Ukrainians – and countries hosting refugees — cannot wait,” said the High Commissioner.
He reiterated that although humanitarian workers are courageous, resourceful and experienced, “they cannot keep the pace of conflicts constantly growing in numbers and gravity around the world”.
The responsibility of the Council to ensure that peace and security prevail over power struggles and national interests “has never been as urgent, and as indispensable a task, as it is tonight,” said Mr. Grandi.
“If you fail – if we fail – it might be too late for us all.”
The picture is grim – and could get worse still. Children will miss school and face a greater risk of physical harm, displacement and unimaginably severe emotional distress. 3/4— Martin Griffiths (@UNReliefChief) February 28, 2022
Day-to-day basics gone
As the world witnesses the military offensive in Ukraine “with a sense of disbelief and horror”, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Martin Griffiths attested that “civilians are already paying the price”.
He painted a grim picture of an alarming scale of civilian casualties and infrastructure damage, cutting off access to critical supplies and services amidst “skyrocketing” humanitarian needs in the hardest-hit areas.
Families are separated, the elderly and those with disabilities trapped as aerial attacks and fighting in urban areas disrupt essential services, such as health, electricity, water and sanitation.
“This effectively leaves civilians without the basics for day-to-day life,” said the humanitarian chief, urging all parties to respect international humanitarian law, spare civilians from harm, and avoid using explosive weapons in populated areas.
“The longer this offensive continues, the greater the human cost for civilians”.
Children will miss school and face a greater risk of physical harm, displacement, and severe emotional distress; and women, so often disproportionately affected by conflict, will be at even greater risk of gender-based violence, according to the Emergency Relief Coordinator.
And if the economy implodes, humanitarian needs will further exacerbate, creating a ripple effect far beyond Ukraine's borders.
“Already the upheavals in recent days are deepening a pre-existing humanitarian crisis, said Mr. Griffiths, noting that eight “gruelling years of conflict” in Eastern Ukraine had already left three million people in need of humanitarian assistance on both sides of the contact line in the Donbas region.
Doing their best
The Relief Coordinator noted that despite an increased UN humanitarian presence working around the clock in Ukraine, for the last three days, ongoing fighting and a lack of assurances from the conflict’s parties that humanitarian movements would be protected have “seriously constrained” operations.
“Today, our most pressing humanitarian needs are for emergency medical services, including sexual and reproductive health services, critical medicine, health supplies and equipment, safe water for drinking and hygiene, as well as shelter and protection for the displaced,” said Mr. Griffiths.
“Right now, we urgently need progress on two fronts if we want to reach more people with aid,” he continued, pointing to protection assurances for humanitarian workers and additional resources.
The senior UN official told the Ambassadors that the Secretary-General would launch a humanitarian appeal tomorrow with the two components of a three-month Flash Appeal for inside Ukraine and a Regional Refugee Response Plan for the situation outside.
He joined the UN chief, Mr. Grandi and others in calling on Member States to show support with “quick, generous, and flexible funding”.
“But this is not enough. The lives of millions of civilians are at stake,” flagged Mr. Grandi.
Reminding how “brutal, deadly, and protracted urban warfare can be”, he underscored that every effort must be made to de-escalate the conflict, calling for “an immediate cessation of hostilities”.