Ukraine: Briefing on Humanitarian Developments
Tomorrow (19 April) afternoon, the Security Council will hold a briefing on humanitarian developments in Ukraine under the agenda item “Maintenance of Peace and Security of Ukraine”. The meeting, which was requested by France and Mexico, will focus on the situation of refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and returnees. Director General of the International Organization for Migration (IOM) António Vitorino and UN Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Kelly T. Clements are expected to brief. Ukraine and several of its neighbouring countries are expected to participate under rule 37 of the Council’s provisional rules of procedure.
This will be the sixth time that the Council has held a briefing on the humanitarian situation in Ukraine since Russia launched its military assault on 24 February. While previous meetings had sought broadly to address the humanitarian situation (on 28 February, 7 March and 17 March), recent meetings have had a specific focus, including on the effects of the war on global food security (29 March) and on women and children (11 April). (For more information, see our 5 March, 17 March and 10 April What’s in Blue stories.)
The war in Ukraine has prompted one of the fastest-growing humanitarian and displacement crises in recent history. As at 18 April, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) had documented 4,890 civilian casualties, including 2,072 deaths, while noting that true figures are likely to be considerably higher. Most casualties have been attributed to the use of explosive weapons with a wide-impact area, such as shelling from heavy artillery, the use of multiple rocket launch systems and air attacks.
Since Russia launched its military incursion nearly eight weeks ago, 7.1 million people have been internally displaced, and 4.79 million people have fled Ukraine to neighbouring countries, according to a 16 April OCHA humanitarian impact situation report. Poland remains the main destination for refugees, having received over 2.5 million people thus far. Thousands of refugees continue to cross the border into neighbouring countries daily, although the overall rate of arrivals appears to be slowing. According to the Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), refugees are increasingly coming from the east of Ukraine, with some reporting having spent weeks hiding at home or seeking refuge in shelters in deplorable conditions.
Meanwhile, Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service reported on 12 April that more than 870,000 Ukrainians have returned to the country since 24 February. Approximately 30,000 individuals are reportedly crossing back into Ukraine every day. At a press briefing today (18 April), Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Martin Griffiths said that migration back to Ukraine may pose new challenges to the UN’s humanitarian response, as people will require assistance to reintegrate into their communities or find shelter in host communities if returning home is not feasible. He further stressed that establishing the conditions necessary for habitation—including safety, housing and adequate provision of public services and goods—could take years, given the significant damage to civilian infrastructure.
People voluntarily returning to Ukraine have no assurance of safety. Although the war has become concentrated primarily in the eastern and southern regions of Ukraine, Russian forces continue to launch missile attacks throughout the country. Today, missiles struck the western city of Lviv, which has been a major transit hub for civilians seeking to escape the country. Moreover, according to Ukraine’s State Emergency Service, roughly 300,000 square kilometres (almost half of Ukraine’s territory) now require demining. In a 17 April interview, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged refugees to delay their return, stressing that “they should come when the situation will be stabilized and when the war will finish”.
At today’s press briefing, Griffiths underscored that the UN’s priority remains securing humanitarian pauses for the safe evacuation of civilians. On 28 March, Secretary-General António Guterres tasked Griffiths with finding common ground between Russian and Ukrainian authorities to establish a ceasefire agreement allowing humanitarian assistance to flow into the country and civilians to be evacuated from cities under siege, such as Mariupol. Griffiths recently met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Deputy Minister of Defence Alexander Fomin in Moscow and Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzhaparova and Deputy Minister of Defence Hanna Maliar in Kyiv to discuss the establishment of humanitarian ceasefires and ways to improve the humanitarian notification system between the UN and Russian and Ukrainian authorities. Noting that ceasefire arrangements are currently negotiated on a day-to-day basis, Griffiths stressed that humanitarian agencies need at least a three-day window to enable the safe evacuation of civilians from conflict-affected areas. He confirmed that Ukrainian authorities responded positively to his proposals but added that “Russians are not putting local ceasefires at the top of agenda just yet”.
In addition, Griffiths discussed establishing a “Humanitarian Contact Group”—an arrangement whereby the UN, possibly together with Turkey, would convene a meeting between Russian and Ukrainian authorities to discuss humanitarian issues such as ceasefire monitoring and the implementation of humanitarian corridors. Griffiths confirmed that he will be travelling to Istanbul for meetings with Turkish authorities on Wednesday (20 April) and Thursday (21 April) to discuss this initiative, as well as how the UN can support the ongoing peace talks hosted by Turkey.
At tomorrow’s meeting, the briefers are expected to highlight the needs of refugee populations and describe efforts underway to strengthen existing national support mechanisms. They may comment on the need to facilitate the work of national mechanisms for the protection of vulnerable groups such as women, children and persons with disabilities who are at increased risk of trafficking, exploitation and abuse. In a 12 April statement, Assistant High Commissioner for Protection at UNHCR Gillian Triggs said that “while the generosity and solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees has been inspiring, states must prevent predatory individuals and criminal networks from exploiting the situation”, adding that the UN is “on high alert and warning refugees on the risks of predators and criminal networks who may attempt to exploit their vulnerability or lure them with promises of free transport, accommodation, employment or other forms of assistance”.
Some Council members may also be interested in hearing from the briefers about how their respective agencies are promoting the protection of lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, intersex (LGBTI) refugees and minorities, given their vulnerability to acts of stigmatisation, harassment and violence.
Vitorino may describe how the IOM has been providing essential humanitarian assistance to IDPs and host communities by distributing cash, voucher transportation support and hygiene kits, and supporting medical facilities providing services to IDPs. Clements may comment on the work of Blue Dot protection hubs, which are jointly operated by UNHCR and UNICEF and provide mental health counselling and medical services, financial assistance in the form of cash disbursement, child protection and social services, accommodation and access to employment in host countries.
Council members are expected to call on both sides to ensure the safe evacuation of civilians. Some speakers—including the US and European Council members—are likely to emphasise Russia’s role in creating the current humanitarian and displacement crisis and urge the immediate cessation of hostilities and the withdrawal of Russian troops from Ukraine. While Council members are expected to commend neighbouring countries for generously welcoming Ukrainian refugees, several members may stress the need for host countries to ensure protection for third-country nationals and avoid discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity.
Some members may also raise concerns about allegations of sexual violence, including rape, perpetrated by Russian soldiers, and stress that conflict-related sexual violence constitutes a war crime. Ukraine may reiterate concerns that Russia is forcibly migrating civilians, including children, to Russia. At a Security Council briefing on 11 April, Ukraine claimed that Russia had “already taken more than 121,000 children out of Ukraine”, adding that “Russia is reported to have drafted a bill to simplify and accelerate the procedure for the adoption of abducted Ukrainian children, both orphans and those who have parents and other relatives”. Russia has reported that over 820,000, including 150,000 children, have voluntarily migrated to Russia since 24 February.