The war in Ukraine has been going on for nearly two months. It has driven 12 million people out of their homes, of whom almost 5 million have left the country. We spoke to Evžen Diviš, Caritas Czech Republic Ukraine Aid Coordinator, about the situation in the country and how we help Ukrainians fleeing the war. Evžen recently returned directly from Ukraine.
The war in Ukraine has already forced nearly 12 million people out of their homes, almost half of them remain in Ukraine. What is the situation in the country like?
As far as the fighting itself is concerned, the Russian army is shifting its focus to regaining control of the Luhansk and Donetsk regions within their original administrative borders. Interest in the centre and west of Ukraine is declining, although bombing continues in these areas as well. From our point of view as a humanitarian aid organisation, this means that the vast majority of people are not yet able to return to their homes.
The east and south of the country remain dangerous and largely occupied. The area around Kiev is no longer occupied, but by all accounts, the areas are badly damaged and mined. This means that they may stay largely inhabitable for a long time, months or even years if the mines are extensively placed across the area. So far, people are returning home only sporadically, so the need to take care of the displaced persists. Whether we are talking about those who have left for neighbouring countries or, for example, the Czech Republic, or those who have moved to the west of Ukraine.
How is the country managing the influx of internally displaced people?
The number of internally displaced, especially those from the eastern parts of the country, is constantly increasing. Evacuations from areas within reach of the Russian army or Russian separatists are continuing. But even in places in central Ukraine, such as Dnipro, people are being urged to leave. At the same time, the type of people coming to the west has changed. Those who left their homes at the beginning of the war were mostly better-off people with contacts in the West, often heading further into Europe. Now, however, the people coming to the west of Ukraine tend to be poorer, with no contacts across the border, and who, moreover, have often fled at the last minute through humanitarian corridors. In fact, only when the war had (almost) come to them. They are thus in a much worse state psychologically.
So far, the basic immediate needs such as a roof over their heads, having something to eat, a place to wash are being met. However, a significant number of refugees have found shelter in collective facilities such as gyms, community centres, unused company buildings, etc. Accommodation is often very makeshift, with many people in one room, on makeshift cots, without sufficient sanitary facilities, i.e. more than 20 people per shower and toilet. And that is not sustainable.
Given that refugees will not be able to return for months, many of them for years, if at all, this type of accommodation is probably clearly inadequate.
Exactly, it is accommodation that is totally inadequate in the long term for anyone, especially mothers with children, who make up the vast majority of refugees. All the indications are that people will have to stay away from where they come from for a prolonged period of time. If they are to survive this period in relative peace, in a mentally stable condition, and in dignified conditions, then this situation needs to be addressed quickly. Some of the displaced are living privately, but the absorption capacity of ordinary accommodation is limited.
So, what is the solution?
There are several possibilities. For example, the use of modular accommodation, or the adaptation of spaces that were originally intended for other purposes. And this is one of the things Caritas Czech Republic is focusing on. Last week, we submitted a project focusing on increasing the capacity of suitable accommodation, and one of the things we are counting on is the construction of very simple accommodation units that will allow separate accommodation for individual families and households. At the same time, they will be assembled from available materials and will not only be easy to assemble but also easy to dismantle and, if necessary, to move to another location.
Caritas Czech Republic is providing shelter for refugees also in Iraq. Can the situation and needs of refugees in Ukraine and Iraq or Syria be compared?
The needs are very similar, but otherwise I see a number of differences. The host communities in Ukraine have a greater absorption capacity, and can take care of a relatively larger number of displaced people. In western Ukraine, for example, there are enough places in schools and kindergartens and it is relatively easy to ensure that refugee children continue their education. It will certainly not be easy, but Ukraine's starting position is certainly better than, for example, in Iraq, where many refugees have ended up in refugee tents and similar extremely makeshift shelters.
Is Caritas planning more long-term assistance in Ukraine?
So far, we have submitted four projects; three for funding assistance in Ukraine, one project is in Moldova, where we are already providing intensive assistance to refugees. In addition to the aforementioned increased capacity of decent and appropriate accommodation, we will also focus on the health sector and access to health services and psychosocial support.
Can you elaborate on how exactly Caritas Czech Republic is helping refugees in Moldova?
We have had our own office in Moldova for a long time and have been working in the country for many years. So naturally we have extended our assistance to incoming refugees, providing them with basic needs and equipping refugee centres with everything they need. For these activities, we were able to obtain a grant of EUR 2 million from ECHO, which is the European Commission's body dealing with, among other things, humanitarian aid. This is significant not only for those we are helping, but also for our organisation, because it is extremely difficult to get money from ECHO and we have not been able to do so for several years.
Assistance to refugees in western Ukraine or abroad is slowly shifting to more long-term and sustainable solutions. However, this type of assistance is not possible in the south or east of Ukraine. Is there any way to help people in these regions as well?
Absolutely. In addition to the things I mentioned, we also provide material humanitarian aid. And we have delivered it also to Zaporizhzhia. We have delivered several trucks of humanitarian aid to Caritas Mariupol, which has temporarily relocated to Zaporizhzhia, or to medical facilities there. At the same time, whatever we deliver to the west of Ukraine it is, to some extent, further redistributed to the east of Ukraine.
Caritas Czech Republic does not have its own office in Ukraine. How challenging will it be to ensure the activities we have been talking about run well in the country?
We have been cooperating with Caritas Ukraine for a long time and we will continue this cooperation, but at the same time we will do some of the activities independently in the Transcarpathian region. But there is no need to worry about this, during my recent trip I have already managed to establish relationships with local organisations and institutions that we will be able to rely on locally. At the same time, we have a lot of experience from other countries with the type of assistance we are going to provide.
Thank you for the interview and good luck.
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