As number of refugees have passed four million and other millions are internally displaced or trapped in Ukraine, aid agencies are challenged and facing criticism and women and children fleeing are at risk of abuse. While the European Commission has rejected mandatory distribution of Ukrainian refugees both EU and member states are concerned over uneven arrivals across the EU. Extraordinary Justice and Home Affairs Council confirms increased support for Moldova with relocation.

With more than 4 million refugees, 6.5 million internally displaced and an estimated 13 million trapped by hostilities in just over one month, the Ukrainian displacement crisis is unprecedented. Ukrainian politicians have expressed disappointment with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and leading humanitarian actors. “Unfortunately, not a single foreign or international NGO was ready for the war in Ukraine to start despite the fact that six months ago everyone was talking about that and everyone was warning everyone that the war was going to start,” mayor of Lviv, Andriy Sadovyi, stated. “No one was prepared for an emergency of this scale and speed. Even the Ukrainian government criticised international media for creating fear before the war, saying they did not expect an invasion,” a UNHCR spokesperson responded. Ukraine’s deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, said the major humanitarian organisations appeared “disoriented” by the conflict. Vereshchuk further described the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) as “impotent” over its lack of success in negotiating agreements on humanitarian corridors out of cities such as Mariupol saying: “We give them a task: Chernihiv or Kherson, the places where it’s difficult for us. Where we can’t negotiate with the Russians, we say just go there yourselves and evacuate people, take buses and go and get people, and they can’t do it”. An ICRC spokesperson responded: “Unfortunately, it is up to them. We can only facilitate. We need to maintain our neutrality. This is the difficult role of the ICRC and at the moment it is why we face a lot of criticism coming from all sides”. Warnings over the exposure of the mainly women and children fleeing Ukraine continue. “For predators and human traffickers, the war in Ukraine is not a tragedy,” UN Secretary General, António Guterres recently warned continuing: “It’s an opportunity – and women and children are the targets”. Reports of abuse has emerged including recent incidents in Poland and Germany.

While the idea of mandatory quotas has been rejected by the European Commission, home affairs commissioner, Ylva Johansson has expressed concern over the uneven arrivals across the EU. “It is important to incentivise Ukrainians to leave Poland to go to other members,” the commissioner stated in the context of the more than 2,3 million arrivals to Poland. Daily arrivals to the EU are down from around 100,000 in the early phase to 50,000 but the situation remains volatile. “If we end up with figures doubling or tripling, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and others won’t be able to handle this anymore,” stated a senior EU diplomat. While Poland and other neighbouring states have taken the bulk of people arriving, numbers are also increasing unevenly across the rest of the union. As of 28 March Germany had seen 270,000 arrivals, France and Spain had seen 30,000 and 25,000 respectively, while Austria and Lithuania had received 35,000 each. The Czech Republic had received some 300,000 Ukrainians, representing almost 3% of its population. “The wave is huge, and we have to anticipate that it’s not over yet. Now we are counting on the solidarity of other EU countries,” said Czech Interior Minister, Vit Rakusan, warning of his country running out of reception capacity. German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser stated “We need to more actively distribute refugees within the EU and show solidarity by taking in refugees”. Only a fraction of Ukrainian refugees have so far applied for temporary protection in the EU – just 800,000 out of the first 3,8 million arrivals.

Poland remains the main country of arrivals with 2,362,044 Ukrainian refugees entering since the Russian invasion on 24 February. An expert opinion in Foreign Policy Magazine points to the country’s dilemma given its previous hostility towards migrants and refugees: “Poland Demonized Refugees. Now It’s Struggling to Integrate Them. The heaviest burden of accommodating fleeing Ukrainians has fallen on the state least prepared to carry it”. While, civil society have stepped up to meet the significant challenge of supporting Ukrainian refugees, NGOs have urged further government involvement. Despite the acceptance of Ukrainians, Polish authorities harsh approach to migrants and refugees remains very visible at the country’s border with Belarus where reports of recent arrests and detaining of volunteers have emerged. Four activists from Grupa Granica were detained on 23 March accused of aiding migrants crossing the Belarusian border to Poland. According to the organisation the activists were simply providing humanitarian aid to a family with seven children who had been stuck at the border for three months. “When they helped refugees from Ukraine they were heroes, now for providing that same help in Podlasie, they are criminals,” the organisation stated. According to ECRE member, Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC), the government is inflating number of Ukrainian arrivals to seek EU funds. The organisation rejects government claims of welcoming more than 540,000 Ukrainian refugees as “misleading” noting that most people arriving subsequently travel on to other countries. UNHCR figures sets the number of arrivals at 368,807. HHC has further warned of the government’s failure to ensure adequate information to refugees. In a recent Tweet the organisation stated: “24 women, 26 children. They were not informed of the possibility to seek temp protection. In fact, they were not informed of anything at all by the authorities. We drove 800+ km only the past 2 days to provide info & assistance on the spot; colleagues are also on duty 24/7 online”.

Following recent confirmation of deployments by the European Border and Coast Guard Agency (Frontex) INTERPOL has also deployed a team to the Moldova, that has seen 388,837 arrivals from Ukraine, that will consult and cooperate with Moldova’s authorities: “in areas such as human trafficking, migration and border management”. On 25 March the first 134 Ukrainian refugees of a 2,500 places promised by Germany, arrived by air-bridge. Support for the country – one of Europe’s poorest was also among the topics on the agenda of an extraordinary meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council on the reception of refugees from Ukraine on 28 March. According to the Council of the EU, the “main results” included: “the commitments made with regard to the reception of refugees from Moldova, with 14,500 places already proposed”. Further, “Ministers took stock of the means of material and financial support deployed with regard to both their level and their flexibility” and “discussed possible additional financial needs as well as potential gaps in the support provided by the agencies”. The implementation of the decision on temporary protection was also addressed as was coordination of guidance and travel within the EU. Finally, “ministers reiterated the need for the continued strict application of external border controls. They also supported the mobilisation of the EU network to fight organised and serious crime (EMPACT) in order to avoid the exploitation of the situation by criminals, including via human trafficking, online fraud and embezzlement of funds destined to support refugees or arms trafficking”. The practical outcome of discussions was outlined in a ‘10-Point Plan on stronger European coordination on welcoming people fleeing the war against Ukraine’.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.