Ukraine conflict: Humanitarian Access as a Major Challenge

As years of armed conflict go by, the protracted crisis in eastern Ukraine leaves millions in insecure future and deepening humanitarian hardship. As a result, according to the United Nations, 4.4 million Ukrainians have been affected, and some 3.8 million of them are in need of some form of humanitarian assistance.


The nature of humanitarian assistance has changed throughout the years of the ongoing conflict: while emergency needs persist in acute form, new needs arise. Gradually, an early recovery phase becomes an integral feature of the country’s needs. People on both sides of the contact line cannot get their lives back to normalcy due to a plethora of factors: ceasefire violations, depletion of financial resources, security concerns, psychosocial suffering, lack of adequate shelter, separation of communities, etc. The people’s needs on both sides of the contact line might vary, but in principle they are all united by one common hope – for the fighting to stop, and artificially-created borders between the government-controlled area (GCA) and non-government-controlled area (NGCA) to fall.

Whilst 2.9 million people on the NGCA side of the contact line are cut from the Ukrainian state social benefit system, many people living in GCA also do not a have clear understanding of their future. Thus, this humanitarian crisis has evolved into a protection one, with humanitarian consequences, according to Mamar Merzouk, the head of the Directorate-General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO) office in Ukraine. Barbara Manzi, the Head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), agrees on that point: “It is a serious protection crisis, where many millions of Ukrainians are somewhat precluded from enjoying their rights vis-à-vis the state.”

Despite the active involvement of both national and international aid organizations, protection needs of returnees are increasing, according to Gianluca Galli, the Area Manager of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC).Furthermore, it is happening in an environment where “the [state] protection system does not yet correspond to the global one,” underlines Dina Gud, Senior Protection Specialist at the Danish Refugee Council (DRC).

Despite the already existing mechanisms of delivering aid in government-controlled areas, what remains a serious concern is access to the NGCA side of the contact line. “We question how to conduct a needs assessment in NGCA and negotiate with de facto authorities to undertake a humanitarian response accordingly,” says Gud. Neither DRC nor NRC expects to be permitted to operate in the NGCA in the foreseeable future unless the international community effectively campaigns for it and reaches arrangements with NGCA. “To allow foreign help to come to NGCA we need to advocate on the highest level for a political decision coming from the Russian Federation,” underlines Galli. In addition, in regard of International Humanitarian Laws, “we must strongly remind authorities from both warring parties on their obligation to meet the essential needs of the population under their control”, says Antoine Terrien, advocacy expert for Action Contre la Faim.

Access and other challenges in Ukrainian crisis will be addressed at the international conference titled “Ukraine – the Human Face of the Eastern Conflict,” taking place in Brussels on 23rd January 2017. Humanity appears to be often neglected in conflicts taking place worldwide, and the Ukrainian crisis is not an exception. “We have to put human faces in a highly political conflict. At the end of the day, the more conflicts are politicized, what is needed more and more is bringing humanity to attention,” says Mamar Merzouk.

The title of the conference emphasizes the vitality of bringing the aspect of humanity to the forefront of the discussion about the ongoing conflict. The crisis in Ukraine, a lower middle-income country, differs from many other crises globally, as it takes place in a country where infrastructure, education, and economy were comparatively developed prior to the conflict.

Having a “fairly high baseline,” according to Manzi, ensuring concurrent recovery action means investing in capacity building, communication for development, and the empowerment of beneficiaries. In this case is the application of a people-centric approach reflected on the local, national and international levels must be at the core of advocacy and of action. “Our aid initiatives are meant to regenerate communities – to empower them to become independent of assistance. What people value, from my experience, is not only when you give and feed them, but also when you contribute to their lives and well-being,” says Mamar Merzouk.

Moreover, raising voices of conflict-affected communities, giving them space to be listened to and heard must be an crucial part of the humanitarian response. “We should strive for not only giving and feeding, butalso understanding what actually happens there,” states Dina Gud.

“One of the consequences of the ongoing conflict is separation of communities as it destroys social networks,” Galli outlines one more concern. How to bring them together and activate national capacity? Manzi advocates for nurturing it by investing in civil society. “The longer-term sustainability can be ensured by cooperating and transferring both knowledge and best practices to local partners. Identifying strong networks of community-based organizations (CBOs) and civil society organizations (CSOs) is necessary, to ensure investments bear fruits,” explains the Head of OCHA. The DRC Senior Protection Specialist adds that the quantity of local actors has to be “translated into quality” as an essential part of INGOs’ exit strategy.

International experts also emphasize the prominence of partnership-building for conflict resolution. Therefore, the discussion between humanitarian actors, donors and decision makers at the conference “Ukraine – the Human Face of the Eastern Conflict” will contribute to identifying actions and durable solutions for Ukrainian people.