South Sudan, Venezuela, Peru, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria, Guyana, Kenya, DRC are just a few of the countries facing a significant worsening of the humanitarian situation.
As a humanitarian organisation, UNHCR is committed to ensuring that it can respond quickly when a conflict is causing people to flee their homes, or when political upheaval has displaced a population overnight.
In line with its emergency policy, UNHCR’s aid and experts are ready for rapid deployment across the world. Thanks to a global network of suppliers, specialist agencies and partners, UNHCR can launch an emergency operation within 72 hours.
Staff members join the emergency roster after completion of emergency training such as the Workshop on Emergency Management (WEM), to ensure that the emergency response team has enough UNHCR personnel on standby for emergency deployment.
“Being on standby means that you must be ready to report to the emergency duty station within 72 hours after you have received deployment notification,” explains Olena Turchyn, Assistant Durable Solutions Officer in the UNHCR office in Kyiv, who completed the WEM training and was sent on mission a month later, “practically, for me, it meant that I wasn’t committing to lengthy projects or adventures much in advance. I kept my documents prepared; had all the vaccinations and medical check-ups up to date. I also tried not to have pending issues at work.”
Olena was taught preparedness for deployment at the WEM course in 2019. Together with another 40 UNHCR staff members with various job profiles, Olena was trained on various issues related to emergency situations and learned how to be flexible and how to operate in a hostile environment.
“I thought that the knowledge on how to use water purification tablets or how to put up a tent would remain purely theoretical, but in real life, it all came in handy,” reflects Olena, referring to her experience in Guyana.
We asked colleagues to tell us about their missions and share what motivated them to join the emergency roster.
Dmytro Charskyh, Assistant Protection Officer (Officer in Charge of UNHCR Field office in Donetsk), recently completed a three-month emergency mission to Nigeria. He was among the Emergency Roster Team which was assigned to address the emergency situation in the deep field in Nigeria’s Borno state in local government areas (LGAs). Dmytro was assigned to Ngala, Banki and Dikwa, three towns along the border with Cameroon which currently host large numbers of internally displaced people due to the military hostilities in the east of the country.
“I have been selected for the UNHCR Emergency Roster since 2017, and during the course of 2020, I have already taken part in two emergency missions (Sudan and Nigeria). The most recent one was in Nigeria,” says Dmytro, “the level of displacement and humanitarian needs are appalling there; over 7 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in north-east Nigeria as a result of a crisis that is now in its tenth year,” he explains. “Unfortunately, humanitarian organisations cannot reach out to 1.7 million of civilians since some of the territory is outside of the government control.”
“Due to ongoing regional armed conflict, people suffer massive and widespread abuse against civilians including killings, rape, abduction, child recruitment, burning of homes, and the use of explosive hazards, including in deliberate attacks on civilian targets,” reflects Dmytro.
In such a dire situation, it is important to ensure that humanitarian organisations are aware of the needs of the people and can provide support quickly and effectively. “During three months of my assignment, I was working on establishing the permanent presence of UNHCR in the deep field, building up the capacities of local staff and partners, designing protection and support programs together with colleagues at UNHCR and local communities,” Dmytro says. “There were five people in the ERT team consisting of citizens of Japan, Somalia, Afghanistan and Sudan,” he continues, “among them, I was the only European. Despite cultural and religious differences, the atmosphere in the office was very constructive, and together we were able to build a strong and efficient team and reach the set goals.”
“The working environment in the field in Nigeria is really tough,” Dmytro reflects. “Strong winds carry plenty of sand in the air so you need to wear a protective mask to breathe normally, and precautious against the very intense sunlight and malaria are needed too. Because of the security levels, you cannot walk on the streets, so I wasn’t able to take long walks. What helped me to keep fit was exercising. There are as many as 400 different ethnic groups across Nigeria, but people in the East primarily speak two local languages: Kanuri and Hausa. It was very surprising for the local people to see international (European) staff deployed for long periods in the deep field. One of the words I often heard from the local people was ‘nasara’, which is translated as a ‘[white] foreign man’,” he recalls.
“All of my family has been displaced since 2014 among the millions of people in Donbass due to a military conflict in the East of Ukraine, so I know what it feels like to be affected by the conflict in the most negative way. My motivation to be part of such missions is to assist people who are in dire need, to support UNHCR staff through capacity-building and sharing knowledge and experience across the organisation, to manage and provide effective response in emergencies as well as finding ways to mitigate negative consequences of the conflicts for civilians.”
Olena Turchyn, Assistant Durable Solutions Officer in the UNHCR office in Kyiv
In 2019-2020, Olena served as an Associate Field Officer (Protection) for three months in Guyana, a country on the northern mainland of South America, in a small UNHCR office consisting of seven people, who lead a response on Venezuela displacement situation in the country.
“My task was to help identify opportunities for livelihoods – the ways how refugees and local communities can earn some money to provide for themselves and their families,” explains Olena.
“We went to meet indigenous people (Amerindian communities) in places where there are no roads,” she continues, “so getting there was a challenge: we would often fly to the hinterlands and then take a boat for hours. Many of those communities live from agricultural activities, fishing or occasional random jobs. Some of them, like the Warao people, dwell in thatched-roofed huts built on stilts to protect them from the frequent floods. They use canoes as the main means of transportation. Interestingly, the Warao are very skilled in traditional arts, like weaving baskets and hammocks from Moriche palm fiber. With some adornment, these items could be easily sold in the local market. This was one of the areas we focused on with the Warao communities,” explains Olena.
“The biggest difficulty is that there are no roads in the jungle, and the roads in the savannah can get muddy and inaccessible during the rainy season. Often, these people are simply cut off from economic opportunities. Our task was to help them set up sustainable ways to develop their small business and earn their living. This is what we call the humanitarian-development nexus, where two important areas meet.”
“It was very painful to see that, in the 21st century, people live without a roof over their heads,” reflects Olena. “They sleep in hammocks and cover themselves with mosquito nets to avoid insect bites. To reach a hospital or school, one has to take a canoe for some hours, as petrol for the motorboats is too expensive,” she explains.
“Being part of a small humanitarian team, you learn to work round the clock and to wear many hats: you carry out protection work, but also take care of operations, administration, PI, even finance… Basically, because there is no banking system in the rainforest, you have to bring cash in a backpack to pay for services and to set up processes.”
“The food was ok. Some colleagues missed eating meat, but I was ok as there were many fruits and Brazilian coffee. I even found a Ukrainian-produced oats porridge brand in some tiny shops, even in the jungles”.
Nataliia Kropivka, Assistant Protection Officer serving in UNHCR office in Slovyansk.
For three months in summer 2019, Nataliia was sent to the emergency mission in the south of Mexico as UNHCR Field/Protection Officer with a goal to prepare and open the new registration centre for asylum seekers in the small town Tapachula on the border of Mexico and Guatemala. Nataliia was deployed to support the Mexican Migration Service (COMAR) as the country struggles to cope with the large influx of refugees from neighbouring countries.
For many years, people were fleeing persecution and organized crime in Central American countries hoping to find safety in the United States. Increasingly, Mexico has become a destination country for refugees and migrants from Latin America and beyond. Asylum applications in Mexico have soared from around 2,100 in 2014 to over 48,000 in the first eight months of 2019.
“I was part of the Mexican Migration Service branch in Tapachula, and normally I would come to the UNHCR office only for a few hours per week, and I would consult with UNHCR colleagues remotely,” Nataliia recalls. “I was the only UNHCR staff member working on this project in Tapachula. I speak Spanish fluently so I had no difficulties communicating with the locals”.
“The most difficult stage was actually passing the WEM training,” admits Nataliia, “after that, I was extremely well prepared even though the situation in the town was not safe. Sometimes, there were demonstrations against the asylum seekers and the Migration Service. Since I was easily recognized as a foreign person, I didn’t feel safe at all. People could come up close, and point fingers at me. During the dark time of the day, I couldn’t walk anywhere and spent my evening hours working from home, as usually we would work until 10-11 pm. I moved to three different apartments to keep safe,” she reveals.
Asked to choose the most exciting aspect of the job, Nataliia tells us that it was the results of all the hard work. “Despite all the difficulties, during the three months together with my team we managed to prepare and open the registration centre which is now serving about 250 persons per day,” she explains. “I was also really impressed by the team on site. For five years already, these people had been handling a huge displacement rate, which has been doubling every year, while remaining hardworking and focused. Due to shortages of staff members, they work long hours and during the weekends. Sometimes we also spend time together and did activities outside of the office, like riding bikes to the ocean side,” Nataliia recalls.
“My experience in Slovyansk helped me a lot because our work in Ukraine is very well structured, so I had many skills and knowledge which came really handy in Mexico. The project management skills were the most useful,” points out Nataliia.
Reflecting on the living conditions in Tapachula, Nataliia shares her thoughts. “It was really sad to see how people live there,” she admits. “The town is very dirty, with very few trees and concrete everywhere. It’s such a pity to see that, especially as just outside the town they have amazing nature with a lot of green forests, coffee plantations, and even a volcano. And to make things even worse, life is dangerous for people living in the town due to the high criminal activity,” she recognises.
Nataliia then looks back on her personal experience there. “The living conditions are quite hard,” she admits, “because of the high air temperature which can be over +40°C, and almost 100% humidity. I didn’t get used to the food there, and frequently had to see a doctor for stomach pain and a high temperature. So I would usually eat vegetables, fruits and prawns. Cooking at home was also not very easy, as the flats are rented out without furniture and kitchenware,” she clarifies. “Local people do not really know where Ukraine is,” recalls Nataliia looking back, “even though I was there right after everybody watched the super popular series, ‘Chernobyl’. Hearing my fluent Spanish, they would ask me: ‘Ah, so in Ukraine people speak Spanish same as here?’”
Please note that the photos were taken before the coronavirus pandemic, therefore people on the photographs do not wear masks.