Over the past two years, hundreds of thousands of refugees have come to Europe fleeing their homes in war-torn Syria and Iraq. Faced with the largest refugee crisis since World War II, Europe and the international community have focused their attention on the Middles East, while another large-scale humanitarian crisis has been unfolding before their very eyes inside Europe itself.
“Europe pays insufficient attention to the crisis caused by the Kremlin’s aggression,” said Hryhoriy Nemyria, the chairman of the Human Rights Committee at the Ukrainian parliament, during a conference at the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C. on June 21. The conference, titled “Ukraine’s Humanitarian Crisis,” brought together Ukrainian politicians, human rights activists, and development professionals to discuss the current humanitarian emergency in Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine, which began in 2014, has created the largest, current internally displaced persons (IDPs) crisis in Europe.* According to Ukraine’s Ministry of Social Policy and Labor, there are 1.8 million IDPs in Ukraine. 75 percent of these IDPs currently reside in Donetsk, Luhansk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhzhia, and Dnipropetrovsk – regions in eastern Ukraine that have been most affected by the fighting.
Many of these IDPs lack the most basic necessities, such as medical supplies and affordable food. They have almost no access to public health, education, jobs, and social benefits. Elaborating on this situation, Nemyria observed, “How could you feel secure in the area where you don’t have access to justice…. How could you feel secure and have some confidence in your future when you don’t know where to have food, because you don’t have money for it, or medicine, if you are ill.”
Nemyria believes these failures are a consequence of the lack of a comprehensive national policy to help the IDPs. Alexandr Galkin, director of “Right to Protection,” a Ukrainian charitable foundation that provides legal assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and IDPs, also believes Ukraine’s response to the crisis has been inadequate. “The financial difficulties of the country, coupled with the political crisis and the ongoing crisis in Donbas [Luhansk and Donetsk regions which are under Russian occupation] has meant that there have been neither resources, nor the political will to address the needs of the IDPs and the problems caused by displacement,” he said.
Panelists discussed the failure of the Minsk Agreements, a package of measures to alleviate the conflict in the Donbas region agreed upon by leaders of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany, and signed by pro-Russian separatists in September 2014. “The humanitarian parts of the Minsk agreement are the first and foremost indicators of the viability of Minsk,” Nemyria said. Until the humanitarian components of the agreement are met, it will be impossible to successfully ensure security in the region, Nemyria emphasized.
Nadia McConnell, president and founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation, said that to date, the crisis in Ukraine remains an “invisible emergency.” McConnell criticized the international community for its lack of action and “pathetic if not immoral response.” She noted that, out of $298 million requested by the UN to address the crisis in Ukraine, only 17 percent has been pledged or funded.
McConnell also denounced the media’s failure to adequately cover the Ukraine conflict and blamed it for the “non-existent response by the international community.” She referred to a June 15 story published in The Washington Post about a middle-class family who fled the fighting in the east, slamming it for failing to mention the horrors of war or call the “Russian-backed separatists” what they really are – Russian soldiers, according to McConnell.
As the Atlantic Council conference demonstrated, media, local authorities, Ukrainian leaders, and armed supporters of the Kremlin have all contributed to Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis and the suffering of its displaced population.
The panelists agreed that if Ukraine’s leaders, as well as the international community, do not develop a long-term strategy for addressing the situation, it is likely many people will leave the Ukraine, causing another large-scale refugee crisis in Europe.
UPDATE 6/29/16: This piece has been revised to clarify that Ukraine’s IDP crisis is currently the largest in Europe. The article originally suggested that it was the largest since World War II.