Quick thoughts on the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine and among its neighbours

Brad Blitz, Professor of International Politics and Policy in the Institute of Education, identifies key considerations for European states and their partners as they manage a humanitarian and refugee crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

As Putin’s assault on Ukraine continues, hundreds of thousands of people will seek safety in Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary. Only Poland has some recent experience of receiving mass flows of refugees, which was not handled well.

The outpouring of support and sympathy from Ukraine’s neighbours is most welcome, but there are urgent matters to consider if European states and their partners are to manage this impending humanitarian crisis.

First, we have entered a zero-sum game for the future of a sovereign Ukraine, which is likely to lead to mass and long-term displacement. This then begs the question of refugee integration, which should be considered now.

The creation of reception centres especially in Poland is vital but no one should see this as anything but a temporary and emergency measure. Centres should be open, allowing movement in and out, but need to be secured too, not least because the inflows are largely from women and children.

Reception centres, camps, and collective housing are generally not good for refugees. Especially during a time of Covid. They can quickly become sites of conflict, infection, and insecurity. This raises both public health and security risks, which need to be managed from the outset.

Reception centres may also undermine people’s agency, something that the neighbouring states have sought to protect in their decision not to treat incoming Ukrainians as asylum-seekers. However, as time goes on, their agency will be challenged unless opportunities are created to empower refugees and to prevent the loss of skills and networks that occurs when people are displaced not only from their homes but from their livelihoods and careers.

The best possible option for incoming Ukrainians is to find ways to permit them to continue to live in family units, including in small-scale developments – we should do all possible to avoid the creation of large centres, however efficient it might seem for the receiving states. Despite the tremendous solidarity shown by Greeks, the Italian model of reception was much better for refugees during the Mediterranean crisis, than the reliance on UNHCR managed refugee centres as seen elsewhere.

The highly gendered flows into Poland, also raise other matters of concern, including for the safety and wellbeing of women and children, who have been separated from their husbands, fathers, and brothers. This is not simply a military or operational matter. The receiving states and humanitarian agencies will need to mobilise female staff, including health experts, social workers, psycho-social experts, and educators to name a few. Antenatal care should be prioritised – and pregnant women and mothers should not be placed in temporary reception centres, but moved to secure locations in neighbouring cities.

Families will need to log locations, mobile numbers, and contact information for those still in Ukraine. They should consider using secure servers, and encrypted email systems like ProtonMail and Telegram.

Copies of identity documents, school and university certificates, medical and personal information should be scanned and uploaded to secure sites. Those still in Ukraine as well as refugees should consider sending copies to themselves using secure systems like ProtonMail.

Children have specific needs, including the mitigation of trauma due to family separation, war, and discontinuation of their education. Social activities, such as we saw in Greece, are helpful but they do not replace schooling. Short-term interruptions of schooling may be acceptable but it is vital to minimise disruption to children and to facilitate their integration in the host state. We must remember that among the displaced will be Ukrainian teachers who are best suited to help refugee children and to design a transition from one system to another. Schooling also helps parents, by giving them time to grieve privately away from their children and to focus on their own needs.

Given that this is a war about an identity conflict, where Putin is seeking to erase the political identity of a sovereign state, educational provision in the host state should affirm Ukraine’s distinct identity and democratic traditions through the preservation of historical, cultural, and social activities as informed by refugees themselves and refugee teachers.

Brad Blitz is Professor of International Politics and Policy in the UCL Institute of Education. He has recently served as principal investigator on projects on refugee reception and the protection of communities conflict in the Mediterranean and Afghanistan. 


Photo is by Julie Ricard on Unsplash.

Note: This post originally appeared on the UCL CEID blog and is republished with permission.

Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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