Ukraine – UN Refugee Agency update on solutions and challenges to return and recovery amid ongoing war
This week, UNHCR published a new Position on Voluntary Returns to Ukraine. While returning to one’s own country is a fundamental right, UNHCR is not actively promoting returns to Ukraine due to the ongoing international armed conflict. Any personal decision by refugees to return home must be well-informed and fully voluntary.
UNHCR’s initial non-returns advisory, issued in March 2022, shortly after the Russian Federation’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, remains valid. It calls on all countries to allow civilians of all nationalities fleeing Ukraine non-discriminatory access to their territories and to ensure respect for the principle of non-refoulement.
Although many refugees have made short-term visits to Ukraine, UNHCR does not consider that these diminish in any way refugees’ need for international protection. UNHCR urges host States to maintain a flexible approach to short-term visits to Ukraine, which can help facilitate fully-informed decisions on longer-term return. Legal status and associated rights in a host country should not be affected by a visit to Ukraine lasting less than three months.
Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to consult Ukrainian refugees and internally displaced people on their intentions and concerns, and has published a fourth edition of the survey “Lives on hold: Intentions and Perspectives of Refugees and IDPs from Ukraine”, including for the first time both refugees and internally displaced people (IDPs). This was based on interviews with some 3,850 refugee households across Europe and 4,000 IDP households in Ukraine.
Consistent with the previous surveys, the absolute majority – 76 per cent of the refugees from Ukraine and 82 per cent of those internally displaced inside Ukraine – plan or hope to return, and around 15 per cent plan to return in the next three months.
The main obstacle to return continues to be safety and the security situation as the invasion and international armed conflict continues amid intense fighting in frontline areas plus missile and drone strikes against cities such as Kyiv, Dnipro and Lviv, which yesterday struck a residential building and tragically killed ten people and injured more than 40. As the international armed conflict continues, it is essential that any returns are voluntary and not forced or pressured.
Other key obstacles or enablers to return that are mentioned in the survey are access to basic services like water and electricity, livelihoods, housing and education. These are key areas that humanitarian and early recovery actors work on inside Ukraine, so that those who take the decision to return are actually able to remain, recover and rebuild their lives in their areas of origin within the country.
UNHCR contributes to area-based programmes that support returning refugees and internally displaced people find protection and durable solutions in their areas of return, through protection services, housing and community-based programmes. This also includes legal aid to help returnees recover identidy and property documents and assistance with house repairs and prefabricated homes.
The intention surveys find that there is a high interest to return to areas like Chernihiv region in the north of Ukraine, and to Kharkiv region. These are among the regions where UNHCR has prioritized house repairs. In Chernihiv alone, we have so far repaired around 1,800 houses and assisted 27,000 individuals with legal aid services that help them recover and access administrative and social protection services.
In Kharkiv region, 1,500 households have been supported with house repairs and 50,000 with legal aid and services. In Mykolaiv – another key area for returns – UNHCR has supported 2,200 house repairs and 16,000 people with legal aid. In total, UNHCR has supported the repair of over 13,000 houses in regions across Ukraine and helped more than 240,000 people with legal aid services.
Returns to areas that have been affected by flooding after the Kakhovka dam destruction are particularly challenging. On Monday, I visited the flood-affected Snihurivka hromada in Mykolaiv region and the home of Olena. Her house had been occupied for nine months by Russian soldiers when the area had been under the temporary military control of the Russian Federation. She was just recovering from that trauma when her house was flooded on July 7-8 after the dam was breached. The damage to her house is immense and it was clear that it could not be quickly restored – it was damaged to its foundations.
On Tuesday, I visited Bilozerka hromada, one of the worst flood-affected regions in Kherson Oblast, and met with Liubov – a woman in her 70s whose house had been hit twice by shelling, tragically killing her daughter, who left behind a 19-year-old son and a daughter, aged 9. She described how, after the dam was breached, the water had flooded her street and house up to 3.5 metres above the ground. Her house was still standing but is damaged at its foundations. The trauma they are going through is immense. Next to her lives Sasha, whose house had also been completely covered by water, and then totally collapsed.
What we see in these areas is that the humanitarian and recovery needs are immense. The war, hostilities and then the flooding add layers of challenges to people. They are already worried how they will repair their homes before the winter, which is nearing.
I also saw the other side of the impact of the dam destruction when I visited Nikopol in Dnipropetrovsk region on Wednesday. There, the water shortage is acute. What used to be a reservoir supplying hundreds of thousands of people is now dry land. It looked like a desert in the scorching sun, and on the other side – facing me – was the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant. The population in Nikopol lives in constant fear that something even worse may happen to them.
The layers of needs – humanitarian and recovery – from the international armed conflict and, on top of that, the dam destruction are immense and require the continued support of the international community – now and in the long term.
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