UN refugee chief fears a long war in Ukraine will exacerbate the region’s humanitarian catastrophe

A protracted war in Ukraine – which appears to be a growing possibility, based on Russia’s latest strategic shift – could have disastrous humanitarian consequences for years, said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

“In our experience as a humanitarian agency, this is the most difficult war to face in terms of humanitarian consequences,” Grandi said in an interview that aired Sunday on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live.

Grandi, an Italian diplomat who has led UNHCR since 2016, spoke to Barton in Ottawa. He recently traveled to Ukraine and Poland to assess the worsening of the refugee crisis sparked by the war.

According to UNHCR figures, nearly 4.4 million Ukrainians have left their country since the Russian invasion began six weeks ago. That’s about 10 percent of the country’s total population.

“It was like a sea of ​​people, a river of people moving from Ukraine to neighboring countries,” Grandi said of the exodus.

“The most heartbreaking scene is the separation between the men and their families because the men stay behind to fight. And I’ve never seen anything like this.”

Europe must do more to welcome refugees, says Grandi

Most of the Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighboring Poland, which has struggled to cope with the sudden and large influx of people in need of shelter, health care and other basic services.

UNHCR recently opened a temporary office in Kraków to help the city, which already hosts about 150,000 Ukrainians.

Grandi said Europe’s response to the crisis showed that the continent had the ability to welcome refugees, if not always desired. He said similar offerings of aid and hospitality were not given to people fleeing conflicts in other parts of the world, such as Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

“I’ve heard politicians, even in my own country, say [Ukrainians] are real refugees, nothing else. And it is a very racist and discriminatory scandal,” Grandi said.

“I think there are lessons to be learned here for other refugees from other origins who will continue to go to Europe as a safe haven.”

‘Shining words’ for Canada’s response

Grandi, who met Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit to Ottawa, also praised Canada’s response to the recent refugee crisis.

He praised the federal government for stepping in to welcome refugees in recent years, as the United States scaled back its resettlement program under the Trump administration.

A mother and her baby son take shelter in an indoor sports stadium used as a refugee center in the village of Medyka, on the border between Poland and Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 15, 2022. (Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press)

“In recent years, when resettlement has suffered greatly from the cuts in the United States’ program, it was Canada that rescued resettlement as a solution for many vulnerable refugees,” he said.

“Now the US is back with a big program, which is great, but if it weren’t for Canada staying on the resettlement path … we might be losing the capacity to do this for a lot of vulnerable people. And that deserves shining words. .”

Ottawa has promised to receive an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the war, but concerns have been raised about the quality and availability of services for people when they arrive in Canada.

Strategy shift for Afghanistan

Grandi also noted the shift in the crisis facing Afghanistan. He said humanitarian agencies were now largely focused on ensuring people still in the country could live safely, rather than facilitating more departures.

He said international groups should pressure the Taliban to improve its stance on humanitarian issues, even in the face of recent setbacks – such as the move to once again ban girls from attending secondary schools.

“The response to that must be continuous engagement,” said Grandi.

“We can’t let Afghanistan go because if Afghanistan collapses as a nation … then we will have another colossal humanitarian emergency on our hands.”

Clara Burton

"Geek zombie. Subtly charming social media scholar. Beer enthusiast. Lifelong bacon pioneer."

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