'Incomparable suffering': UNHCR's Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams says worse to come for Ukrainian refugees

Ukrainian refugees gather at the main train station after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Krakow, Poland, March 15, 2022. Picture taken March 15, 2022. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Ukrainian refugees coming across the border may soon be in a more frail state, said Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams. Image: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

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With the fastest-growing flow of people the world has ever recorded fleeing Russia's three-week-old invasion of Ukraine, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR ) has said that humanitarian needs are escalating exponentially.

The number of Ukrainian people displaced both inside and outside the country has now exceeded 10 million, says UNHCR chief Filippo Grandi. Over 3.3 million of them - mostly women and children - have poured over Ukraine’s western borders to escape Russian bombardment of towns and cities.

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams, Head of Global Communications at UNHCR, has just returned from visiting crossing points in Poland, Hungary and Moldova, where international aid organisations are racing to help the arrivals.

She tells of the shellshock and devastation among the civilians she spoke to, their fierce longing to return to their homes and the menfolk they left behind. She also warns of escalating humanitarian needs, not just among increasingly fragile Ukrainian civilians, but farther afield in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria, where urgently needed aid is threatened by dwindling resources.

Interview with Ghedini-Williams on Twitter. Click to watch video

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: The most striking thing was not only the volume of refugees that were coming across all of the borders in the neighboring countries but just the sheer lack of men. Almost 90% are women and children coming across, and every single one of those women have men – whether it's husbands, brothers, sons – that are still across inside Ukraine. I think this sense of separation and loss, and the anxiety that comes with it, was just palpable in every single country that I visited.

What did you hear from Ukrainian refugees fleeing over the border?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: I was able to speak to quite a few of the of the women and the families that were coming across, and it was very clear that there was a tremendous amount of shell shock. I would probably use the word trauma except that that has to be medically diagnosed, but you could see that there was just this pervasive sense of just devastation and shock in everyone's eyes.

The other thing that was incredibly notable was that nobody really expected themselves to be in this situation even a week before, so I spoke to several women who told me ‘I really didn't think that this would happen and I had just mere minutes to decide to run.’

One of the families that I met were two sisters that were traveling with their six children and one of them was carrying a two-month-old, a two-year-old and had an eight-year-old; and so if you can imagine, she didn't have hands to carry any other belonging. She said she came across with a backpack. No diapers. No baby food. No winter clothes other than essentially what they were wearing.

I think a lot of people are in that similar kind of situation where they were waiting until the last minute, hoping that things would get better, hoping that they wouldn't have to flee. And then when either the war or the shelling or even the fear of the conflict coming closer came close enough where they could either hear it or sense the shift in their own neighbourhoods. That's when they ran.

As I was there at the early onset of the crisis, I think most of the people that were coming across – not all, but most – did have resources. They either had family members or connections in neighbouring countries in Europe or further afield. But most of them did not want to go further, so they wanted to stay even if they had family. For example, I met a woman who had her parents living in Germany but she said ‘No I want to stay here in Romania because I want to see whether or not if things get better, if there is peace, then I want to quickly go back in and be reunited with my husband and our home and make sure that everything's still there and has survived.’

I think they didn't know what to expect. They knew that they were going to need help in every possible way and what was really unique was we've seen warm welcomes. We've seen solidarity. We saw so many people that came out as local responders and activists and volunteers. But I have to say, particularly in Poland, I've never seen the level of just organized response among both the national authorities, but more so the local helpers like the people that just came out and donated volunteer time, were providing meals, shelter, opening their own homes. And there were just mounds of supplies. People had dropped off everything – not just diapers and baby food but also strollers, winter clothes, bedding. Even pet supplies because I think everybody saw that there so many people coming across with their dogs and cats.

There must be so many beloved pets and animals left behind. Were people talking about the provisions they had made for their animals?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: Yeah I think for some it was very clear. There was an elderly couple that I met who came across and they brought their two dogs. They also had carriers – because they were on the move for ever. They said it took them about five days to come across into Poland, and they each had a very small bag. They were tiny little suitcases and so and I asked them what did you bring, and they said well you know other than the dogs we did bring some dog food and just two changes of clothes. It’s particularly poignant because they knew that they were leaving their homes possibly for the last time and instead of taking objects or mementos of their life they prioritized taking their two dogs, which meant that they were able to take very little else.

Half of their family is essentially left behind to a fate that is unknown and to a war that is raging.

UNHCR's Joung-Ah Ghedini Williams on the Ukraine refugee crisis

How does this compare to other huge movements of people you've experienced in your career?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: In terms of numbers, I think the only one that comes close is the Rwanda crisis. But there we saw millions of people fleeing over a period of months. Here we've seen 3 million in three weeks, so the scale of it eclipses some of the other emergencies that I've seen. I think the other part of this which is so hard is that there isn't a single refugee among this group who haven't had their families completely torn apart. Where the men in their families, anyone between essentially 16 and 60, are not with them. And so half of their family is essentially left behind to a fate that is unknown and to a war that is raging. So both in terms of the magnitude of the numbers coming across, but also the human suffering, it’s really incomparable.

In terms of the magnitude of the numbers coming across, but also the human suffering, it’s really incomparable.

UNHCR's Joung-Ah Ghedini Williams on the Ukraine refugee crisis

What do Ukrainian women and children coming from Ukraine need most?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: The women and children coming across from Ukraine need everything from shelter to health services to psychological and psychosocial trauma assistance. They need a safe place to land. I mean one of the things that we're most worried about is that, while there's such an overwhelming sense of solidarity and of people who want to open their hearts and homes and pocketbooks to help Ukrainian refugees, there’s unfortunately in fluid, volatile situations like this also people like predators and traffickers who will try to take advantage of the situation.

So for UNHCR and for other agencies on the ground, it is one of our primary priorities to make sure that there are protection measures to ensure women and children are safe, that after the loss and the tragedy that they've already survived, that they're not then further exposed to even greater risk at the hands of people that do not have the intention to help in the least.

How can you protect vulnerable refugees from exploitation?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: Well, right now it is the national authorities in the neighbouring countries that are receiving and registering refugees. Some have asked for support. Together with UNICEF, for example, we are setting up at least 50 ‘blue dots’. These are safe spaces for women and children. A lot of the services will look specifically at assessing potential vulnerabilities or exposure to risk. In addition to that we're working with the governments to make sure that there is a lot of information going out. The refugee population are incredibly tapped into digital and social media. So really putting out the information of being careful, of recognizing risks, of making sure that they are using legitimate resources, and not putting themselves at greater risk.

They talked about being so scared in the cars, not wanting to turn on the lights for fear of being attacked

UNHCR's Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams on the difficulties refugees faced as they fled Ukraine.

We’ve heard about attacks on humanitarian corridors, but can refugees who are heading towards the border expect to get there safely?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: So far, those that have arrived have said that the biggest challenge was avoiding any of the fighting and the frontlines of the of the war itself. What we're most concerned about is that the other Ukrainian civilians that are still inside might be people who have less ability, access or resources to be able to leave. So it may be people living with disabilities. It may be a larger proportion of older refugees. It may be a larger number of people who have health conditions that don't allow them to make this journey.

Some of the refugees that I met talked about walking for five days, and it was freezing. It was snowing on half of the days that I was there along the border. So this is not by any means an easy journey to take and even those that came by vehicle I mean they talked about being so scared in the cars, not wanting to turn on the lights for fear of being attacked and then once getting to the borders some of the borders were so backed up that they were in their vehicles in a queue for up to four or five days. So I think there are so many conditions there that prevented people or that deterred people from being able to make the journey.

We have reports that people are drinking rainwater, that they're down to their absolute last stores of food. So the people that may be coming across in the coming weeks may be in a much more frail and weakened state than the ones who've come across in the in the first three weeks.

What kind of resources do organizations like the UNHCR, UNICEF and Red Cross need to deal with such a vast influx of people?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: I know that with UNHCR, and with all of the other UN agencies as well as international organizations, we're all scaling up. We know that the needs are going to be huge and that they'll be sustained. And that's the thing that we're trying to tell donor governments, and the international community overall, which is that we must sustain this type of attention and support because this is going to be a long-haul crisis.

Even if there is peace within the next days or weeks, there is so much rebuilding. There's so much destruction. There's so much tragedy and trauma that will have to be dealt with. The needs will be huge. So we've pulled together and put out appeals for funding. And that involves everything from shelter and relief items to health services to infrastructure, and school education.


What can the wider international community do to help?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: I think one of the things that we've noted is that because it is right in in the middle of Europe and because the EU is directly involved with Poland and other countries that are receiving refugees from Ukraine, we do know that the resources and the political will is there to share responsibility of this refugee crisis. It shows us that there is the capacity for more compassionate, organized manageable asylum across Europe and across the world.

I mean, we've had offers already from the US, Canada, Brazil and from other countries for temporary protection and humanitarian visas for Ukrainian refugees. And what we're trying to say is this is just as feasible for refugees from Afghanistan, from Syria, from Myanmar, from Ethiopia. And so what we're hoping is that the lesson that we can learn here and the opening that we see must be extended beyond the Ukraine crisis.

Which countries are taking the most refugees?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: Well of the 3 million refugees that have arrived from Ukraine, almost 2 million of them have gone to Poland. It’s unclear how many will actually stay in Poland, but it was really interesting – I spoke to the senior border patrol guard in Poland at one of the border crossings, and they were extending all kinds of support to the refugees coming across, and I asked him, you know, this must be difficult for you also to see all these women and children all these families that are coming across so devastated. And what he said was ‘I look at the kids that are coming across and I try to imagine that some of these Ukrainian children that are coming across as refugees are going to settle in Poland so I try to think of them already as Polish citizens and what I would do for my own children or other Polish children.’

And I think the key is we don't know where most Ukrainian refugees will end up. We know that right now they do want to stay in the neighbouring countries. So that's Romania, Moldova, Poland, Hungary, Czechk Republic, Slovakia … but we also know that many tens of thousands have already gone to EU countries as well as even arrived in the Americas and further afield. So I think we'll only know as the war develops and also as we see how many refugees actually do leave Ukraine where they'll be for the longer run.

I think the other thing to point out is that there has been this tendency of ‘refugee’ being such a negative connotation. It's almost seen as something shameful or taboo, but this crisis has shown us that absolutely anyone and in any place at any time can really become a refugee and it's of no choice or decision that they make on their own.

And the other thing is that refugees also can bring so much. When I was in Hungary, I visited this one pop-up that was a local co-working space. It had then been opened up for any Ukrainian refugees that needed a place to work, to gather themselves, to get meals. Two of the people I met while I was there were actually working remotely. They had just fled and escaped quite heavy fighting – one from Khirkiv and one from Kyiv – and they were there in this co-working space still doing their jobs because they'd been teleworking before anyhow. One was in the travel business and one was in the IT business.

And so what I also want to stress is that Ukrainian refugees are coming with such huge skills. They're coming with skillsets and talents and professions, and these are things that we can really acknowledge and recognize. And also help to support so that they also can have a sense of contribution and livelihood and can sustain themselves. And that's also where private sector plays a huge role. We've seen more support from the private sector on this crisis than probably most of the crises put together, and it's a matter of not just funds but also sustainable programmes, employment-opportunities training and vocation; really creating these programmes that will allow Ukrainian refugees a wider array, not just a one-time assistance package but really to look at how they will be able to support themselves and their families, as well as become integrated into host communities where they live.

Have you read?

The UNHCR Director General, Filippo Grandi, is urging the world not to forget other humanitarian crises in Afghanistan, Yemen and Syria. How are these interconnected?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: Of course, all of our attention right now, or a big majority of our attention, is on Ukraine. It has such devastating impact not just inside Ukraine and the region but also potential impact on Europe and on the world at large. One of the issues that we at UNHCR really try to stress is that everything is interlinked. So for example, in Ukraine the production of wheat is one of the highest in the world. I believe it's the fifth global producer of wheat. But within the humanitarian context it's providing almost 30% of the wheat that is feeding refugees and those at risk around the world. So we know that for example in Yemen we have the highest number of people who are food insecure. I mean we're talking about people that are living on the brink of famine and it is one of the largest humanitarian emergencies in the world today.

What’s important to note is that all of these issues are not only interlinked but refugees and internally displaced people from Yemen have been in the same situation that Ukrainian refugees are finding themselves in today. So they've been devastated by conflict, they've been uprooted and they don't know what their future holds for them.

Additionally we had Afghan refugees who were hosted inside Ukraine and right now it's very unclear whether or not they've gotten out, whether or not they've gotten to safety, because while we have over 115 staff members in Ukraine, like everyone in Ukraine most of them are bunkered and they're only able to go out and deliver aid when and where it's safe to do so. With the refugees that were already inside Ukraine, it's very hard for us to assess what their situation is.

And finally, there are 8.4 million displaced people around the world. The number is huge and sometimes numbers make it difficult to create that human connection. But with the Ukraine crisis what we've seen is that it has touched each of us so deeply because we see the suffering of mainly 90% women and children. But this is the same situation that refugees from so many other places – Ethiopia, Myanmar, Venezuela … so many places around the world are facing the same challenge.

The High Commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, is in Afghanistan today and we will continue to advocate for and to be there to protect and assist refugees and displaced people and stateless people everywhere. And that has to be the case now with Ukraine as well. But also we have to make sure that other very deserving refugee and displaced population also gets the attention and the support that they need.

What can be done to replace the wheat and the food supplies that would normally have come from Ukraine?

Joung-ah Ghedini-Williams: So I think you know what we've been saying from the beginning, as part of the humanitarian sector we can only be there to support and to try to alleviate some of the needs and some of the challenges that face displaced people around the world. Ultimately, the only solutions are political solutions in the case of Ukraine. It's only peace that will really allow life to return, agriculture to restart, markets and economies to get back to a place where they are able to produce the wheat and the sunflower oil and all the other exports that Ukraine has been known for but also that other countries are dependent on.

In terms of how we're trying to adapt, other agencies like the Food and Agriculture Organization as well as private sector are looking at alternatives, where else can we increase production or make sure that we're looking at alternative solutions. But It's almost an impossible question right now because until we know the fate of what will happen inside Ukraine with this crisis, it's very difficult to gauge what types of needs we will need to try to accommodate.

Watch a Special Agenda Dialogue on the Humanitarian Situation in Ukraine, featuring UNHCR, WFP, UNICEF and the Red Cross, here.

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