Last month, I travelled to Poland and Moldova to see the work our humanitarian teams are doing first hand, and to understand what additional support we can provide as this crisis unfolds.
I’ve seen countless refugee crises play out over my decades working in international development, but I was struck, as I know many of my peers have been, by how different this is than what we’ve seen before.
The most immediate evidence? The lack of camps.
It’s what most people imagine when we think of refugees, from Turkey to Kenya: families crossing borders and moving into tented camps and communities, sometimes for years. But circumstances are different for Ukrainian refugees seeking safety in Poland and Moldova; they are being welcomed with open arms by the countries themselves.
Poland, which has seen more than 3 million refugees cross over its borders, has offered Ukrainians the right to work, access to healthcare, and free transport on trains and buses. They’re providing refugees with unemployment benefits; they’re treating everyone with dignity as a matter of policy.
And it’s not just the governments, but the communities – everyday people – who have stepped up and absorbed their Ukrainian neighbours into their homes. This is particularly striking in Moldova, one of the smallest and poorest nations in Europe.
To someone visiting from the outside, with the exception of busier-than-usual train stations, the crisis is practically invisible. And that’s where my deepest concerns lie – because we can’t protect those we haven’t documented; those we can’t see.
Unlike other refugee crises, the Ukrainians fleeing are almost entirely women and children (with some children unaccompanied), and they are vulnerable to say the least. We know that the risk of trafficking and abuse is high because it’s high in every crisis, only here, the usual centralised precautions, checks, and balances are less dominant. Many refugees are finding homes in which to stay using unofficial methods such as Facebook groups and following strangers with signs at the train station.
And unlike other regions, Europe’s open borders mean traffickers can move their victims an incredibly long way without encountering a single border check.
This issue is closely tied to the unifying role of international aid organisations, who have struggled to establish their place – another variable that sets this crisis apart from others like it. Organisations such as the World Food Programme and UN agencies are finding themselves in Poland and Moldova for the first time in many years, which means they lack the infrastructure (from relationships to registrations) to operate effectively, and local governments lack the experience working with these groups to make the most of the funding they offer.
Where the communities have taken on so much, and the international aid is designed to be spent in the short-term, the dynamics between these groups are incredibly unique. The Ukrainians and their Polish and Moldovan hosts need support, but it’s a different kind of support than we’ve seen or experienced in a refugee crisis in recent times.
As waves of refugees continue to move back and forth across Ukraine’s borders, and their profiles continue to shift (from the more affluent Ukrainians who were able to escape early, to those with fewer resources and who have experienced the deepest trauma), understanding the unique dynamics of this crisis will be key to ensuring that all get the help they need.
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