Jan 15, 2024 - World

UN refugee chief urges world to "not forget" Ukraine as war nears 2 year mark

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi on Jan. 26, 2023. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP via Getty Images

UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi is urging the world to "not forget" Ukraine as the country prepares to mark two years since Russia's invasion began.

The big picture: Grandi told Axios that until last year, the UN was "trying to say Ukraine should not take all the space." As the war rages on and other conflicts emerge, "now, we have to say the opposite."

  • About 6.3 million people who fled Ukraine remain refugees, mostly in other European countries, while nearly 4 million people are displaced within Ukraine's borders.
  • "I don't think we are yet at that stage of forgetfulness," Grandi told Axios after helping launch the UN's 2024 response plan and $4.2 billion appeal for Ukraine on Monday.
  • "But we are certainly at the stage where it is not a headline, and the sense of urgency that was there, which included humanitarian action, unfortunately, is not there."

The big picture: Russia's invasion in February 2022 created the fastest and largest displacement crisis in Europe in decades. Nearly two years later, the outflow of Ukrainians has substantially decreased, but the needs are still immense.

  • Just half of school-age refugee children are enrolled in schools in their host countries, according to UNHCR.
  • Access to health care for Ukrainian refugees is still a struggle.
  • At the same time, the UN estimates that only 40% to 60% of Ukrainian refugees are employed. Many have only been able to get jobs below their qualifications.

Psychological support also remains vital, Grandi told Axios.

  • This includes addressing the psychological trauma caused by the fighting itself, as well as that caused by the separation of families.
  • This year's UN response plan will help support dozens of local Ukrainian organizations and groups led by refugees. "It's refugees taking care of other refugees and this is one of the best models for mental health support," Grandi said.
Ukrainian war refugees protest with placards in front of Russia's Embassy to Romania, in Bucharest on October 14, 2023. (Photo by Daniel MIHAILESCU / AFP)
Ukrainian war refugees protest with placards in front of Russia's Embassy to Romania on Oct. 14, 2023. Photo: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images

Zoom in: Those challenges are often amplified for those displaced within Ukraine.

  • "No place in Ukraine is untouched by the war," UN aid chief Martin Griffiths told reporters in Geneva on Monday.
  • The needs are exacerbated by Ukraine's harsh winter, which makes proper shelter, clothing and supplies essential, Griffiths added.

Zoom out: Grandi, Griffiths and other UN officials hope that helping Ukraine will remain a priority for countries worldwide, especially because the war shows no signs of abating.

  • About 14.6 million people — about 40% of Ukraine's population — will need humanitarian assistance this year due to the fighting, according to the UN.
  • "The conclusion of the war is an incredible political challenge, but looking at it from the humanitarian point of view, this very protracted situation is going to be devastating and inevitably will also create more indifference, which means less resources," Grandi said.

Grandi specifically pointed to the U.S., where support for military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine is waning, particularly among Republicans.

  • Addressing the humanitarian aid aspect, Grandi told Axios: "We do need resources from the biggest aid provider in the world," he said.
  • Humanitarian aid is important for the people experiencing devastating conflicts — from Ukraine to Gaza to Sudan — but he argued it's also important for the "U.S. government as well, because good strong humanitarian aid provides the stability that all great powers need."
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