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Ukraine: 10 things you need to know

22 Dec 2014


Even as global attention fades, the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine is deteriorating. Credit: UNHCR
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Even as global attention fades, the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine is deteriorating.

Since hostilities began in April 2014, insecurity and displacement have steadily increased across eastern Ukraine. Ongoing ceasefire violations–punctuated by heavy shelling and armed conflict–have displaced more than 1 million people inside the country and abroad.

Those remaining in the conflict-affected areas of Donbas–a region on Ukraine’s far eastern fringe–face daily threats from incessant military activity. Basic life-saving services have been disrupted. Access to banking and cash services is limited. Food and household items are rare and expensive. There is increased lawlessness.

Here are the 10 things you need to know about the crisis in eastern Ukraine:

1. What was once a manageable crisis is now a full-blown humanitarian emergency that requires significant international support. In the space of just four months, the number of internally displaced people has more than doubled from 190,000 in late August to more than 540,000. The number of Ukrainian refugees in neighbouring countries has similarly ballooned: from 200,000 in late August to nearly 570,000. One third of people displaced are children.

2. People need help now to make it through the harsh winter. Temperatures in the range of -20˚ C are not uncommon in eastern Ukraine at this time of year. Community buildings that are housing displaced families need to be reinforced. Children, the elderly and people with disabilities desperately need warm blankets, clothes, shoes and cash to make it through the winter months. Aid groups have reached about 65,000 people with “winterized” assistance, but the needs far outweigh what has been delivered so far.

3. Families are struggling to keep food on the table. There has been a nationwide food price increase of 25 per cent this year, with even higher figures reported in some conflict areas. The Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, has lost half its value. Banks have closed, pensions have been locked and hard currency (worthless as it is) has become increasingly scarce. This situation will only get worse.

4. International humanitarian law is not being respected. The life and dignity of those communities still trapped in conflict areas are at serious risk. Civilian casualties are rising, the trust between communities is eroding and people continue to flee their homes. There has been a marked disregard for the principles of international humanitarian and human rights law, and near absolute intolerance for any diversity in political viewpoints.

5. Health services and social institutions in areas no longer under Government control are in a critical state. Ukraine’s health system was weak before the crisis, but it is now in a perilous state. The World Health Organization estimates that about 1.4 million people need some form of medical assistance, but they cannot access it because they cannot afford to pay. Less than half of Ukrainian children have received necessary vaccinations. Social institutions, including orphanages, homes for the elderly and prisons in areas outside of Government control are out of money and battling to retain staff.

6. As in any conflict, children are paying the highest price. The UN Children’s Fund estimates that 1 million children need humanitarian assistance. Many are living in makeshift collective centres throughout the country. About 10,000 children are under State care in conflict-affected areas. Every single child is suffering psychologically. They are missing out on school, and they face heightened risks of disease because of poor hygiene and because there are not enough medicines and vaccines.

7. The generosity of the Ukrainian people has thus far kept the country afloat, but for how long? Host families and the welfare state have, until now, kept affected people from complete collapse. However, an absolute humanitarian catastrophe is looming as the resources and savings of affected people are depleted.

8. To make a difference, aid agencies need more resources... They need US$189 million to meet the needs of the women, children and men affected by the conflict.

9. … But they also need safe access. Aid agencies have been unable to negotiate access to many communities trapped in non-Government-controlled areas. Agencies cannot ship in desperately needed supplies, so the burden on host communities continues to grow. Very little international assistance has reached these areas. All parties to the conflict need to guarantee the safe passage of humanitarian workers and convoys.

10. Peace and reconciliation are the only solutions to this crisis. Aid agencies in Ukraine are committed to helping all those in need, but there must be a peaceful political solution to this crisis before it becomes even worse.