The Ukrainian crisis has caused almost eight million refugees in European Union countries to join seven million internally displaced people and an official Russian figure of three million people who left Eastern Ukraine for the Russian Federation. After a trip to Kiev for high-level meetings, António Vitorino confesses himself pessimistic about the course of the war and the impact of winter on Ukraine and neighboring countries.
The best thing for migrants would certainly be peace. Based on your experience and in the current exercise of your position, do you find in the different political actors a true desire for dialogue to find peace with the other party?
There are some encouraging signs from the point of view of security and peace in the world, although they do not constitute a solution. For example, there is a truce that has lasted in Yemen between the warring parties. In Ethiopia, there was a period of truce, but now conflicts have reignited. More recently in Ukraine, I have to say that I don’t see great prospects for peace. On the contrary, we are even witnessing an escalation that results from political rhetoric, with reference to the use of nuclear weapons. Such an explicit statement of the possibility of using these weapons has no historical precedent.
And do you take that statement seriously?
We have to take everything seriously. We cannot be naive and not be prepared. I have about 560 IOM people on Ukrainian territory and we will reach 700 by the end of this year. I have to foresee every scenario, including this terrible and frightening scenario. These fictitious referendums, which were organized to create the illusion of annexation of Ukrainian territory by the Russian Federation, obviously represent an escalation in the conflict which, as the Secretary-General of the United Nations said, does not allow us to be optimistic about the possibility of a negotiation and a peace agreement.
The Ukrainian government also had a symbolic expectation of some normalization of flows in time for the start of the school year. At what point is the movement of Ukrainians back to the country that took place over the summer?
This movement is ongoing and is complex to analyze. I discussed this very issue in my meeting with President Zelensky. Ukraine’s interest is in the return of these people to contribute to the enormous task of rebuilding the country. We are witnessing a significant internal movement of people displaced by the war who are gradually returning to their places of origin. These are completely destroyed, devastated during the conflict, namely in Greater Kiev and in the north of the country, which were under occupation by Russian forces that withdrew. When people return to their place of origin, they continue to live in extremely precarious conditions, as if they were displaced within their own country. Our main concern is the coming winter because the living conditions are very difficult. About 10% of people who left the country after the outbreak of the conflict have already returned to Ukraine. There is also a commuting movement of women – remember that they are the overwhelming majority of people who left – and who now return to Ukraine for a certain period of time, from three to five days. They go to see their husbands, their homes, the elderly who did not leave the country, but later leave Ukraine for the European Union country where they left their children in the care of family and friends.
This complicates migration statistics. This pendulum movement is permanent and constant. It is very difficult to calculate its size, because the border registers are not coordinated.
A recent IOM study shows that half of the six to seven million internally displaced people in Ukraine have no source of income. Does this mean that a larger-scale relief operation is coming for the winter?
It’s already happening. We have been preparing for winter since the summer, because in Ukraine it is a particularly difficult and rigorous period. We have mobile brigades that make small repairs to houses that are not seriously damaged and where people can protect themselves from the cold. But the big instrument that we have – not just the International Organization for Migration, but also the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Program – is a very extensive program of financial assistance. Some 78% of displaced people tell us that their greatest need is money. The most effective way to support people and also to give them self-confidence and hope for the future is to give them that financial support, in cooperation with the Ukrainian government and local authorities, so that people buy essentials like warm clothes . People don’t find what they left behind.
But there was a lot of warm clothing directed towards Ukraine soon after the conflict began. And that outfit is still needed.
I was in Kiev two weeks ago and everyone was telling me on the streets that the temperature had dropped earlier than the historic one. This means that we are probably going to have a very harsh and prolonged winter.
There is a sensitive topic concerning people transferred from occupied zones to Russia. What is the IOM’s approach to this reality?
We also raised this issue with President Zelensky. Together with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, we have made ourselves available from the beginning to provide humanitarian assistance to people displaced from the Russian Federation. We are an independent, neutral and impartial humanitarian agency. We support those in need, regardless of nationality, religious belief or territory of origin. The Russian Federation did not accept our offer, as it did with a similar offer from the International Committee of the Red Cross. Therefore, we do not have access to the people who left Donbass towards the Russian Federation. We only know the figures that are released by the Russian Ministry of Defense, which points to three million people. IOM continues to be present in Lugansk and Donetsk with a very residual activity. We know from direct knowledge of the degradation of the humanitarian conditions of the people living in these territories who live under Russian occupation. We continue to negotiate with the Russian and Ukrainian governments the conditions of access to provide humanitarian support to these people.
Winter is also coming for people who have sought refuge in neighboring countries. Are you also worried about this situation?
Absolutely. Energy concerns are common to all countries. We cannot rule out the possibility of cuts in energy supply, starting in the interior of Ukraine where we have a large operation underway to distribute boilers and heaters in collective installations. Many people who lost their homes are now installed in old sanatoriums and other units that we are equipping with heating that depends on this simple thing that is the supply of gas and electricity. Unfortunately, we have seen some attacks in recent weeks aimed precisely at power generation and distribution plants in Ukraine. This means that much of our operation that we are setting up requires an electrical system capable of responding to heating needs.
Source: Renascença – Noticias by rr.sapo.pt.
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