Refugees fleeing Lviv, Ukraine Refugees fleeing Lviv, Ukraine 

Over one million people flee Ukraine to surrounding countries

The International Catholic Migration Commission is embarking on a campaign to raise funds in response to the Ukraine crisis in coordination wtih bishops' conferences around the world.

Vatican News staff writer

Efforts to implement the first agreement on humanitarian corridors between Russia and Ukraine appeared in difficulty on Saturday with accusations of violations of the ceasefire in the city of Mariupol. Russia had agreed on humanitarian corridors that would allow civilians to leave the cities of Mariupol and Volnovakha. Hopes are that these secure passages will remain open for citizens to leave the areas for safety.

The United Nations reports that in just seven days over one million people have fled Ukraine due to the violence in the region, with countless others displaced internally.

The International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC) based in Geneva is working to come to their aid through a coordinated response in conjunction with the bishops' conferences around the world. ICMC provides assistance and protection to vulnerable people on the move and advocates for sustainable solutions for refugees and migrants.

ICMC Secretary General, Msgr. Robert Vitillo, spoke to Thaddeus Jones about the situation and how secure passages could help Ukrainians reach safety and the international aid reaching surrounding countries there to assist them. 

What is ICMC doing right now regarding the situation in Ukraine?

ICMC was founded 70 years ago by Pope Pius XII to be a network of Catholic Bishops’ Conferences that are engaged in responding to refugee and migration emergencies throughout the world. So we're trying to share information with the bishops’ conferences and be of help to them. We are also involved in a fundraising campaign to be able to support the work of the Bishops’ Conferences in response to the Ukraine emergency and also to support the work that's being done by the Church in Ukraine.

What are the latest reports you are receiving in terms of the emergency and even the numbers that are on the move now?

Well, it is hard to get exact numbers in terms of the number of people who have already left Ukraine. Some of the estimates are around one million already. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees projects that , by July 2022, probably up to four million people will have left Ukraine, as a result of this emergency, especially if there is no end to the conflict in a very short period of time.

How do you manage something like this that’s literally come about all of a sudden and of such huge proportions?

Well certainly the UN humanitarian agencies are very much engaged in managing a big response, macro responses. The European Union is very much engaged as well. But actually, it's the Church and small groups that are usually the first responders. And so that is the case already in Ukraine, and then in the countries that are receiving the refugees. The Catholic Church is very much engaged in this providing for the immediate assistance of the many people who are displaced in Ukraine, and even the local population, who are staying in shelters, in subway stations and safe spaces like that. So, the immediate food needs, sanitation, clean water and then also, because it's winter warm clothes and heating. These are the needs that we have for the people displaced in Ukraine, but also for those who are arriving in the neighboring countries. The other thing that we have to remember is that this is a tremendously traumatic situation, and there's a great deal of need for mental health and psychosocial support, Some of the Church-related organizations are asking for help in building capacity in that way. Also, spiritual help is needed. For the refugees in neighboring countries, there's not a lot of priests who speak Russian and Ukrainian. And so, there's been an appeal from the bishops of those countries to send Russian and Ukrainian speaking priests and chaplains.

Looking at the current situation, they're talking about safe pathways for people to flee. How important would you describe them and what they are exactly?

Well, it’s very important that those who cannot stay in Ukraine right now and especially the most vulnerable, the women, the children, the elderly and the sick, that they are able to go to a country and be welcome there. A number of the countries are welcoming them already. Certainly, Hungary, Moldavia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia are among those countries that have been receiving the refugees. They have had different kinds of welcome. In Hungary, for example, the Church has reported that there are many self-appointed volunteers, who are going to the Church and saying, "we would like to help in your programs." In Romania, people are offering rooms in their homes and welcoming families. So, there are different ways of responding, but certainly Caritas, Jesuit Refugee Service, and the bishops themselves are responding. In fact, in one country it was reported that "the bishops are our best volunteers," so the bishops themselves are engaged in helping the people. Also, there is the need to then make sure the people who are presenting themselves at the borders can cross. The European Parliament recently approved the directive to all EU countries that people be welcomed and that they could get temporary protected status for even up to three years if it is necessary. The other thing that's not talked about so much is that there many foreign students in Ukraine. There were up to 330,000 Indian students in Ukraine, many of them in medical schools, and also many African students. And so again, the European Union has recommended to the EU countries that they be allowed to enter those countries, even if they do not have a passport with them, as long as they had a residence in Ukraine because they were studying or also for the foreign workers that they be allowed to go into the EU countries and be safe there. So those are the kinds of safe pathways that are necessary. Right now, we do not know how long this situation will continue in Ukraine and if many of those people will be able to go back to Ukraine. If peace comes about in a short period of time, or will they eventually either need to be settled somewhere else. Many of the ones who are going to neighbouring countries, don't plan to stay there, since they want to go to countries where they have family members in Western Europe. So, we'll have to see what happens in terms of long-term planning, if this will be a long-term conflict, as we have going on in so many other places in the world as well.

Would you say a light, despite all the darkness, is this incredible outpouring of solidarity and also in such a short time?

Absolutely, and I think, much of it is based on religious values and on the Gospel. Many of the people in Ukraine, and in the surrounding countries are Christian and our Catholic Church is very, very well organized in terms of responding to these kinds of emergencies. In fact, a number of the larger humanitarian Catholic organizations, including ICMC, have been meeting with Vatican officials to see how best we could coordinate the work that we're doing, even though each organization might have its own specialty, its own approaches, at least to be sure that they're no big gaps in terms of the needs of the people, as we respond. And especially how best we could help the local Church because they are the first responders.

If you were to give people suggestions, what they can do to help, what would you say?

First of all, to pray. We need divine intervention to bring about peace in this situation. As in many of the long-term conflicts throughout the world. We shouldn't forget those in other parts of the world who are suffering as well. Also, to donate. A lot of times people want to put together a truckload of food or something and send it. But really the best thing to do is to donate the money so this could be used by the humanitarian agencies, the Church agencies and others to purchase what's necessary. And also, the UN recommends that cash assistance be given to the refugees so they can determine what they need and what they want to buy with that cash assistance rather than handing them something that someone else has donated. So that's an important thing is to donate money so that the Church could be in a better position to be able to respond.

Of course, if they're special initiatives collecting food and medicine it can help to participate in those...

Absolutely, but then we have to remember that then we need the resources to be able to get those goods to the places that have the greatest needs. So it takes careful planning and then we want to make sure that the refugees themselves have discretion over what they want to purchase, but certainly there are many who are putting together material goods to send. There's also a need for medical supplies. I was involved yesterday in a meeting of a Catholic health organizations that are getting engaged in sending the supplies that are needed by the the hospitals and the medical clinics both in Ukraine and in the surrounding countries. 

Listen to interview with ICMC Secretary General, Msgr. Robert Vitillo


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05 March 2022, 15:37