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Crisis in Ukraine: Humanitarian and Human Rights Imperatives

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Summary and Recommendations


The Refugees International Investigation

From March 2 through March 9, 2022, a Refugees International (RI) team traveled to Poland in the wake of the renewed Russian invasion of Ukraine. The team traveled some 600 miles in eastern Poland, visiting border crossings and reception areas in cities hosting people who had fled Ukraine. They met with refugees; members of Polish civil society; and United Nations, U.S. government, and Polish officials.

The Ukraine Crisis

As a result of the Russian invasion, Ukraine is in a human rights and humanitarian crisis. About 6.48 million people are estimated to be displaced within the borders of Ukraine, and more than 3.3 million people have fled Ukraine, becoming refugees. The vast majority of refugees are women and children, who are at particular risk of trafficking, sexual exploitation, and gender-based violence. More than 2 million of the refugees are in Poland.

The Global Response

The speed and breadth of the international response to the crisis has been unprecedented and generous, with the European Union, the United States, and other donor governments contributing generously to aid efforts. The EU is providing legal status and protections to people who have sought or are seeking refuge from the war in EU countries. A very welcome development, it stands in sharp contrast to European responses to refugee flight from outside the continent—but should be the norm.

Refugees in Poland (And Elsewhere in the Region)

The generous refugee response mobilized in Poland is impressive and heartwarming. Volunteers have largely been the backbone of the effort, with provincial governments (voivodeships) offering varying levels of support—and in many respects playing catch up. In Poland and other receiving countries, the UN, EU, and other donors must support governments and civil society to meet refugees’ reception and integration needs in the immediate and longer term. These include safe accommodation, medical and mental healthcare, and access to education and employment. An effective response will be grounded in local civil society organizations, investing in their capacity to scale existing services. Swiftly developing government initiatives to responsibly collect and share information about aid efforts within and across borders is necessary to strengthen protections and avoid trafficking, exploitation, and other rights abuses in the region.

Unfortunately, non-Ukrainians—in particular Black and brown individuals—who have fled Ukraine have faced greater obstacles in reception and integration, with problems emerging on both sides of borders. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the EU, and other leaders have publicly urged that everyone fleeing Ukraine be allowed into the EU, regardless of race or nationality.

The Humanitarian Crisis within Ukraine’s Borders

Even as States take on the responsibility of welcoming refugees fleeing Ukraine—a challenge Europe can manage—they must give urgent attention to what is emerging as a far more formidable challenge: the humanitarian emergency within Ukraine. Conflict, and especially the Russian bombardment of civilian institutions and inability of civilians to flee in safety, has created an overwhelming internal crisis, exacerbating an already dire situation. Moreover, several factors suggest that the situation will become even more desperate. In particular, as the Russian military’s offensive has become frustrated, it is laying siege to population centers and creating enormous suffering.

War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in Ukraine

Refugees International is persuaded that the Russian military and the Russian government are responsible for war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukraine. They must end such abuses and must be held accountable for a broad range of widespread, indiscriminate, and what clearly appear to be cruel, deliberate, and unprovoked attacks against civilians in Ukraine and against civilian institutions.


Ending the Conflict

  • The Russian government must halt its offensive and withdraw all its troops from Ukraine. In the absence of such Russian withdrawal, Refugees International makes the following recommendations:

Refuge and Protection Outside Ukraine

  • The UN Secretary General and interested governments—including the government of China—must press Russian President Vladimir Putin to guarantee Ukrainian civilians’ safe passage to more secure areas within Ukraine and to countries that will offer genuine protection for those seeking to flee Ukraine. Countries bordering Ukraine should continue providing unencumbered access to territory.

  • EU Member States must swiftly implement the EU Temporary Protection Directive in an inclusive way to provide safety and support for all those who need protection.

  • Governments in countries receiving refugees must prioritize registration procedures that collect data disaggregated by age, gender, origin, and other factors, and should take advantage of available EU funding and resources to effectively share responsibility for refugee reception with a view towards integration. This includes sustaining a community-based reception model and avoiding refugee camps.

  • Governments and organizations, informed by refugees themselves, should design and implement programming tailored to the specific needs of the people fleeing Ukraine, who are largely women and children. This should include transitional cash and cash-for-work programs, trafficking and gender-based violence prevention, and access to mental healthcare and childcare. Continuous monitoring can help ensure the response adapts to meet changing needs. The UN and European governments should provide adequate resources and coordination support, as necessary, to sustain a response that benefits refugees and their host communities.

  • The United States and other donor countries should direct significant financial support to the governments of refugee-receiving countries bordering Ukraine, in accordance with their level of need. Donors should work with national governments to ensure that aid is provided to NGOs and officials working at local levels in each of these countries.

  • The UN Secretary General, the U.S. Secretary of State, EU leaders, and European governments should press Poland and other nations bordering Ukraine to ensure that non-Ukrainian nationals are treated fairly and without discrimination, including in accessing safe territory and adequate reception conditions, and receiving protection and integration support if unable to return to their countries of origin.

  • As part of an international responsibility-sharing effort, U.S. President Joe Biden should immediately announce that he will authorize, on an emergency basis, the resettlement of at least 100,000 Ukrainian refugees over the next two years.

Humanitarian Assistance Within the Borders of Ukraine

  • The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the EU through its Civil Protection Mechanism, and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) must accelerate efforts to develop an assistance support infrastructure in Ukraine. Donor governments must commit to sustain the generous levels of support that will be necessary and prioritize delivering aid through local organizations in Ukraine or in the region.

  • Humanitarian aid should respond to civilians’ needs for immediate relief, including food, water, safe shelter, and medical care (including medical evacuations), and prioritize cash-based assistance wherever practical. Aid should also support early recovery efforts.

  • Armed forces should guarantee safe and unimpeded access to civilians in need for humanitarian actors to deliver life-saving aid. This includes establishing and preserving safe humanitarian corridors for the movement of goods and people.

Accountability for Abuses of International Humanitarian Law (The Laws of Armed Conflict)

  • The Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) should intensify the investigation relating to war crimes and crimes against humanity, which has been supported by a number of governments.

  • The United States government should publicly support the ICC effort.