By Filippo Grandi, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
Greetings from Geneva.
Today and in recent days, you have heard that the United Nations humanitarian organizations, together with their NGO partners, have remained in Ukraine. Let me start by saying how proud I am that we decided to do so, just like we did in Afghanistan a few months ago.
But naturally, as we just heard, our colleagues on the ground – like the rest of the civilian population – are now caught up in this deadly conflict. Many of them were relocated and military attacks might force them to move again. Yet 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 – working with partners, including, especially, national NGOs, often in extremely dangerous circumstances.
But we know that we are not even scratching the surface to meet the needs of Ukrainians, including an unknown but surely very substantial number who have been forced to flee their homes over the past days. 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 aid, the help that Ukrainians desperately need.
I therefore echo as well the urgent call made by the Secretary-General, and just a few minutes ago by the Emergency Relief Coordinator and by others indeed: civilians and civilian infrastructure must be protected and spared, and humanitarian access must be granted for those delivering aid to those impacted by war. A failure to do so will compound the already extraordinary levels of human suffering.
In addition to the grave situation inside Ukraine, and as Martin just told us, 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.
As we speak, there are 520,000 refugees from Ukraine in neighbouring countries. This 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-rising exodus of people – the largest, surely, within Europe, since the Balkan wars. Over 280,000 have fled to Poland. Another 94,000 to Hungary, nearly 40,000 are currently in Moldova; 34,000 in Romania, 30,000 in Slovakia; tens of thousands in other European countries. We are also aware that a sizeable number have gone to the Russian Federation.
I want to commend the governments of receiving countries for allowing refugees access to their territory. The challenge to admit and register, to meet the needs and ensure the protection of those fleeing, are daunting, but so far they have been met, though I am seriously concerned about the likely, and further escalation in the number of arrivals. Mr President, we may have just seen the beginning.
So my message today is one of gratitude to the governments of Ukraine’s neighbours, and also – through them – my heartfelt thanks to the citizens of those countries.
Ordinary Poles, Hungarians, Moldovans, Romanians, Slovaks and citizens of other European countries have undertaken extraordinary acts of humanity and kindness. This is the humanitarian instinct that is so needed in times of crisis. I encourage governments to continue to maintain access to territory for all those fleeing: Ukrainians, of course, but also third-country nationals living in Ukraine – people there to work and to study, and in some cases people that are in Ukraine as refugees – and all of whom are now similarly forced to escape the violence. At this critical juncture there can be no discrimination against any person or any group.
I am aware that the European Union, its member States and other governments have already provided countries receiving refugees from Ukraine with bilateral support, which I hope will continue. UNHCR, with its United Nations partner agencies, and national and international NGOs, is present in all these countries and we are scaling up. We encourage host countries to avail themselves of our support and expert advice as they address the situation and uphold their international obligations.
We are helping and can do more in areas like protection and registration, organizing reception capacity, providing emergency relief and cash assistance, and in identifying and responding to the needs of the most vulnerable, many of them women and children, including a growing number of unaccompanied and separated children.
I regret to say that unless there is, as Martin said, an immediate halt to conflict, Ukrainians will simply continue to flee. We are currently planning – repeat: planning – for up to four million refugees in the coming days and weeks. Such a rapid increase would be a huge burden for receiving states and would no doubt stress reception systems and related resources. Like all countries hosting refugees around the world, they cannot be left alone to shoulder this 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. This would enable if activated immediate and temporary refuge in the European Union. It would also facilitate the sharing of responsibility for people fleeing Ukraine among European States.
As Martin mentioned, we will launch the UN Humanitarian Appeal for Ukraine tomorrow – for activities both inside and outside the country. Private citizens and companies from around the world have already offered extraordinary financial support through thousands of donations – over US$40 million to UNHCR alone, in a couple of days – and I am counting on governments to do the same – and quickly. Ukrainians – and countries hosting refugees from Ukraine – cannot wait.
Finally, Mr President, a reminder that Ukrainian refugees – like all others (and please let us not forget the continuing plight of Afghans, of Syrians, of Ethiopians, of the Rohingya people from Myanmar, and of many others) – all of them never wanted to be refugees. They never wanted to be forced to flee their homes, and they all hope to return to their country as quickly as possible.
Members of the Security Council,
It is not very often that I get to brief the Security Council. Let me take this opportunity, therefore, to echo what I said to the Council the last time you invited me, a few months ago – that humanitarian workers are courageous, resourceful and experienced, but they cannot keep the pace of conflicts constantly growing in numbers and gravity around the world.
I speak to you as a sixth night of anguish falls over Europe, struck once again by war, and as millions of innocent Ukrainian civilians huddle in bunkers, scramble to board overcrowded trains, and think with trepidation about the future of their children.
Let me say – as an old humanitarian worker myself – that the responsibility that you have – to ensure that eventually peace and security for all prevails over power struggles and narrow national interests – has never been as urgent, and as indispensable a task, as it is tonight.
If you fail – if we fail – it might be too late for us all.