Concluding a week-long visit to Ukraine, where four years of conflict have displaced an estimated 1.5 million people, UNHCR Assistant High Commissioner for Operations Mr. George Okoth-Obbo has called for enhanced actions to address the plight of conflict-affected persons and to secure their rights, including access to pensions and freedom of movement.
The Assistant High Commissioner met with a number of refugees in the capital of Kyiv, noting their experiences and challenges, as well as with UNHCR’s NGO partners that support them.
In a meeting with Ukraine’s Vice Minister of Internal Affairs, Ms. Tetiana Kovalchuk, Mr. Okoth-Obbo shared UNHCR’s concerns over the low recognition rate for asylum-seekers. He also urged the authorities to facilitate access for UNHCR and its partners to asylum-seekers in international transit zones at airports to provide legal assistance.
“It is of concern to UNHCR that some asylum-seekers, especially Syrians, are not allowed to lodge asylum claims at airports,” said Mr. Okoth-Obbo. “Allowed access to them, UNHCR will be able to support the asylum-seekers in their applications, while also extending the necessary cooperation to the State Migration Service.”
Mr. Okoth-Obbo later traveled to eastern Ukraine where he observed UNHCR’s activities on the ground and met with people in need of humanitarian assistance. His first stop was at a school in Bogorodishna near Sviatohirsk, which is providing education to both local and internally displaced children. Afterwards, he met with a group of internally displaced people (IDPs) of different ages at a community center run by UNHCR partner Slavic Heart. The group highlighted the difficulties they face in accessing their pensions, the risk of being unable to pay for and losing their accommodation at the centers at which they are staying, poor living conditions at the centers and their hopes of being able to exercise voting rights in local elections.
Since the conflict started in 2014, people living in non-government controlled areas (NGCA) must travel to and register as IDPs in government controlled areas to undergo regular verification procedures in order to be able to receive their pensions. This travel involves passing back and forth through one of five checkpoints available at the “contact line”, a particularly trying experience for the elderly and people living with disabilities. After witnessing the long queues in the extreme cold and snow at Maiorsk checkpoint, Mr. Okoth-Obbo was clearly moved.
“These people are traumatized twice,” he said. “Firstly, by the experience of the ongoing conflict and, secondly, by the complex requirements and procedures which make it very difficult for people to receive their legitimate pensions and social security payments or even be at risk of losing them.”
In other meetings with government officials, including the Minister for Temporarily Occupied Territories and IDPs, Mr. Vadym Chernysh, the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Mr. Sergiy Kyslytsya, and the Ombudsperson for Human Rights, Ms. Liudmyla Denysova, Mr. Okoth-Obbo acknowledged that, with support from UNHCR and its partners, the Government of Ukraine has improved conditions and the processing of civilians at the crossing points. At the same time, he urged for more to be done.
Mr. Okoth-Obbo was accompanied by Ms. Pascale Moreau, Director of Regional Bureau for Europe, and Mr. Pablo Mateu, UNHCR’s Representative in Ukraine.