Grandi meets some of two million displaced by Ukraine conflict
MAYORSK, Ukraine – The queues at the crossing point are long and the weather is freezing.
“One hour I’ve been standing here,” one man told United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “It will take me five hours in all just to cross over.”
Grandi was making his first trip to Ukraine as UN High Commissioner for Refugees, a post he assumed last January. Two and a half years of conflict have left more than two million Ukrainians displaced from their homes in other parts of the country or refugees in Russia.
It divided the country – into non-government controlled areas in the east, the Donbass region, and the majority of the territory under government control.
“It is the civilians who are very much trapped.”
Mayorsk is one of a handful of crossing points where people can now go back and forth. It is a slow and tortuous process but each day several thousand cross over here.
“It is the civilians who are very much trapped in the logic of this conflict,” Grandi said.
Many of the people lined up to cross into the non-governmental sector are displaced. They go back to see relatives or to check their houses, often damaged in the fighting and shelling.
Most of the people going the other way, according to the man who talked to Grandi, are pensioners. They must cross into the government area to receive their small pensions. To do so they must produce an electronic pass allowing movement across the line.
Earlier Grandi visited an accommodation facility in Sviatohirsk for almost 200 people with disabilities and their carers who are displaced, many of them having been displaced more than once.
Officially there are 66,434 registered displaced people with disabilities in Ukraine, more than four per cent of the total number of displaced.
In Sviatohirsk they are housed in a disused soviet-era sanatorium. The residents crowded around Grandi, some in wheelchairs, others blind. They cover their immediate needs with money from their disability benefits and have heating but no hot water, because of large, unpaid water and electricity bills.
“We really need to work with the state in developing systems.”
The staff of 35 have not been paid in two years and work as volunteers. Sanatoriums are not subsidized by either the local or national governments as was the case in the soviet era.
UNHCR, along with partner NGOs, provides these displaced people with coal and wood, blankets, and legal and basic needs support. Grandi, who met the Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko on Monday, promised to press for more support for people affected by the conflict.
“We really need to work with the state in developing systems,” he said. “That can provide safety nets for those really in need – the elderly, the disabled and the poorest.”
The High Commissioner also met Vlada, a 15-year-old girl from a town outside Luhansk. Vlada is confined to a wheelchair and she insisted on talking to Grandi in English, a language she had taught herself. She also taught herself piano.
She said she had learned English to see the world, but, told the High Commissioner, “now I want to go to school.”
Before the conflict she did go to a school which had been equipped with ramps for wheelchairs. But the local school in Sviatohirsk has no ramps and the classes are on the second floor. Now she must study in her room with teachers visiting her to provide some education.
Grandi said his organization will try identifying a solution to allow Vlada to go back to school.
“I think you are doing great,” he told Vlada, “but organizations like UNHCR will have to remain engaged to ensure that people like you have access to basic services and rights such as education and a dignified life.”