Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator, Ursula Mueller, Remarks at Conference on the humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine and the way forward, 28 February 2018


As delivered

Your Excellencies, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I am grateful for this opportunity to brief you on the ongoing humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine. My thanks to ECHO for organizing this important event.

I had the opportunity to visit Ukraine last October, and to cross the conflict line. There, I saw for myself the impact of four years of grueling violence on ordinary women, men and children who are bearing the brunt of the suffering. I was there in autumn, and many of the displaced people I met were worried about how to withstand the cold of winter. I can only imagine how their suffering has grown, with temperatures in eastern Ukraine plunging well below freezing over the last few months. This event is timely, given the urgency of an immediate and substantial upsurge of assistance to meet people’s growing needs.

It is sobering to note that four years ago, Ukraine had no need of a humanitarian appeal. Yet today, 3.4 million Ukrainians need humanitarian assistance for their protection and survival, particularly in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. At least 2,530 civilians have been killed since hostilities began, and nearly 9,000 people have been injured. These are staggering statistics, but we must remember that behind these numbers, there are mothers, fathers and children who have lost their love ones, and whose lives will never be the same again.

With no definitive ceasefire, thousands of people in the East have had to adapt to the “new normal”. They continue going about their lives, but children have become familiar with missiles, and their schools are walled with sandbags. Families are used to fleeing to the basement every time they hear shelling. Today, 200,000 people in Governmentcontrolled areas who live within 5-km of the “contact line” experience an average of 47 incidents of shelling a day.

And this crisis is happening in Europe’s back yard, yet it is largely forgotten by the world. We must do better at communicating the daily violence and intensifying deprivation in eastern Ukraine affecting millions of people.

Hostilities aside, hundreds of lives have been lost due to mines and explosive remnants.

Countless ceasefire agreements have failed to stick, and it is this political failure to bring about a definitive end to the conflict that continues to force 4.4 million conflict-affected Ukrainians to endure daily suffering and to make impossible choices.

Take the case of Valentina, aged 65 and displaced from her family. Living alone in a small damp room in Sviatohirsk, she told me she must choose between spending her meagre resources on food, coal, or medicine.

Right now, hundreds of thousands of families in Ukraine are struggling to put food on their table. A countless number of elderly people and children are bearing frigid temperatures without proper heat or shelter.

When I met with displaced family members in eastern Ukraine, I was struck by their resilience and stoicism, but I was also disturbed to see they were beginning to lose hope. They felt the world was no longer interested in their plight. Many expressed concerns for their future. Would the shelling ever stop so they could return to their homes? Would their home still be there when they could? A young displaced mother with her children told me that she does not know what the future holds for her family. Unfortunately, this is the reality for the majority of the 1.6 million Ukrainians, who are now displaced across the country.

The most vulnerable among these people are the elderly, with pensioners making up over half of the people in need. As assets run dry, and host communities’ hospitality wanes, many of these internally displaced people or IDPs, are surviving on next to nothing, their coping mechanisms eroded. Many are forced to resort to degrading and dangerous practices to cope.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is not the life of dignity that they deserve.

Legal impediments make it difficult for IDPs to access the basic services and entitlements they need, and as such, they still require humanitarian assistance and protection, in the form of healthcare, food, shelter and counselling services.

Host communities’ needs must also be addressed, as resentment, discrimination and stigma of IDPs mounts.

I commend the Government of Ukraine, with the leadership of the Minister for the Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs, His Excellency Chernysh who stepped up efforts to address these challenges and came up with a solid National IDP Strategy. While, humanitarian assistance and protection are imperative, a strategic vision to find sustained solutions for both IDPs and host communities is an excellent approach to build a future with hope. It is now time to turn this strategy into action.

Respect for International Humanitarian Law is an immediate must by all parties to the conflict. Last year, critical water and sanitation facilities were hit at least 135 times, leaving millions in conflict-affected areas without access to clean water. While the plight of 4.4 million Ukrainians receives little attention by the international community, in 2017 alone, thousands of homes, and hundreds of schools, kindergartens, and medical facilities were at the centre of hostilities, leaving millions without access to schooling and health care.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is clear from a solid and comprehensive 2018 Humanitarian Needs Overview (HNO), that needs across all sectors continue to rise. Particularly hard-hit are 2.4 million people in Ukraine, who live in non-Government controlled areas and across the “contact line”. Facing severe restrictions on their freedom of movement, many of them have very limited or no access to basic health, education and other services. Up to one million crossings are made each month through the five checkpoints at the ‘contact line’ as vulnerable individuals seek medical care, and the elderly pick up their pensions or families access markets and visit relatives. But crossing entails hours of waiting. While making this long journey, civilians are often exposed to shelling and mine explosion.

I met a woman, standing at the checkpoint, who said she often waits hours to cross the ‘contact line’ to collect her pensions. She claimed she has no other choice, but to cross, as people can only collect pensions in Government controlled areas. However, 600,000 pensioners across the “contact line” have not been able to access their pensions due to bureaucratic hurdles. The situation with crossing the “contact line”, particularly for the people of Luhansk region is severe, as there is only one checkpoint. I can hardly imagine, how a 65-year-old pensioner can wait for hours, in what are often blizzard conditions, to cross the checkpoint’s rickety bridge, while shelling continues nearby.

Conflict has also disrupted access to markets and livelihoods, causing food insecurity to soar in conflict-torn areas. We have evidence that in 12 months, food insecurity across Donbas doubled, with 1.2 million people now severely or moderately food insecure. Food assistance alongside livelihoods support are urgently needed so that resilient Ukrainian families can get back on their feet.

Serious protection concerns prevail in eastern Ukraine. It is rapidly becoming one of the most mined areas in the world, which, if not addressed, will stall reconstruction and development for many years to come. With almost 1.9 million people affected by mines and unexploded ordnances, mine clearance and risk education is urgently needed in all conflict-affected areas, particularly along the “contact line”, including the checkpoints.

With active hostilities continuing through the winter, we are seeing further politicization of humanitarian assistance by all parties to conflict, particularly when it comes to controlling access to aid. Parties to conflict have not complied with key elements of the Minsk agreements on ensuring people’s access to humanitarian assistance, despite some improvements in Government-controlled areas.

Of greatest concern is the dire situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, where access to millions of people in urgent need of humanitarian assistance and protection is severely curtailed. Whilst it does not stop humanitarian actors working altogether, it does impede our ability to scale up to the levels urgently required.

We urge the de facto authorities to facilitate the resumption of the activities of all humanitarian actors’ programmes, for the benefit of the people in need, consistent with international law. I also appeal to the Government of Ukraine to do all it can to ensure freedom of movement of civilians, and to end the commercial ban across the contact line. Finally, I urge the Government to adopt a whole of government approach to solve the plight of IDPs through the approved IDP Strategy.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The United Nations and humanitarian organizations continue to assist where they can and to advocate for access where they cannot. With support of donors, in 2017, we reached 1.1 million people with some form of aid, be it access to safe water, food assistance, essential items, education materials, hygiene kits and other forms of relief. We could have done much more, if we had had sufficient funding, and sustained safe humanitarian access to people in need.

Last year’s Humanitarian Response was just 35 per cent funded. It is increasingly challenging to plan a proper response without some assurance from donors that sufficient support will be forthcoming.
In December, we launched the highly prioritized 2018 Humanitarian Response Plan, which seeks $187 million to assist the most vulnerable 2.3 million people. EU Member States and ECHO have been key contributors to the humanitarian cause in eastern Ukraine. Today, I look again to Europe as neighbor to Ukraine to ensure this appeal is properly funded early in the year.

We can make a positive impact in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in Ukraine only with the strong support from the international donors. Each of these people deserves a better tomorrow. Let us all play a part in making this happen.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge a colleague, who has led the humanitarian response in Ukraine for over three years as Humanitarian Coordinator, Neal Walker and who will retire later this year. Neal, on behalf of the United Nations and the people you have worked so tirelessly to assist, thank you. We wish you well in your exciting new life in academia.

I also thank the Government of Ukraine for its commitment to improve the ability of humanitarians to operate in both eastern Ukraine and the areas it controls and I urge it to further simplify the procedures that affect freedom of movement and the receipt of pensions and social benefits by civilians residing in non-government controlled areas.

Before I hand over to the European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management, Mr. Christos Stylianides, let me close by reminding all here today: 4.4 million people in Ukraine will soon enter a fifth year of conflict. The international community has an important role to play in supporting conflict resolution and bringing about lasting peace. This is the only durable humanitarian solution for the people of Ukraine.

Thank you.


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