Mar. 09 2022

An Expert Voice on the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: Q&A With Monette Zard

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in late February, at least 2 million people have fled the country, creating the largest and fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II. Monette Zard, director of the Program on Forced Migration and Health, says neighboring countries have largely welcomed refugees and have been working to meet their basic needs, but looking ahead, they face numerous challenges, from COVID-19 to human rights violations.  

In a discussion with Transmission, Zard, a professor in the Heilbrunn Department of Population and Family Health, shared her expert insights into the situation on the ground and what lessons can be drawn from the crisis.

What is the situation in Ukraine? Why are people leaving their homes?

It’s a dangerous situation in many parts of the Ukraine. Civilians have been targeted and caught in crossfire. Residential areas have lost electricity and water, and can’t access food or medical treatment. So far, more than 2 million people have fled the country. There may be many more who are internally displaced people, and we know little about their physical condition. Women and children have been some of the first to leave, alongside third country nationals. Ukraine requires adult men to remain and fight. We also need to be concerned about those civilians who remain in place. Often elderly people opt to remain behind; people with disabilities find it difficult to flee; and sometimes civilians think they can ride it out and they become trapped in appalling conditions. This is giving impetus to the request for “humanitarian corridors” out of cities like Kharkiv and Mariupol for these populations to be able to reach safety.

Where are refugees going? What support are they getting?

About 1 million Ukrainian refugees have gone to Poland; the rest have gone into neighboring countries—all areas with existing Ukrainian populations. European countries have largely waived their entry requirements for arriving refugees. This policy is undoubtedly saving lives. There is an incredible mobilization of popular support for the refugees. Refugees are receiving food, clothing, shelter, health care. They are housed by family, friends, and everyday Poles. The EU for the first time ever has applied its Temporary Protected Status Directive, allowing Ukrainians to access one-year residence permits—and thereby access education, social supports, the right to work—all without having to go through lengthy asylum procedures.

We need to channel the solidarity we are seeing into strengthening the refugee systems we have for all people.

How does the situation compare to previous responses to refugee crises?

It’s heartening to see the outpouring of help by everyday people for Ukrainian refugees. They are being welcomed and cared for by communities and countries that are relatively well-resourced. Cross-border communities and ties foster empathy, as we have seen in places like Jordan and Uganda. But the international refugee protection system should apply regardless of nationality, ethnicity, and creed. Russia also made the bombs that fell on Syria and led millions to flee. Just months ago, Poland said they had no space to absorb any more refugees from the Middle East. Today their borders are wide open to those fleeing Ukraine. That is sobering and should make us reflect. We need to channel the solidarity we are seeing into strengthening the refugee systems we have for all people.

What about other conflict areas?

The world has more than 80 million people who have been forcibly displaced, of which 26 million are refugees. There are massive humanitarian needs related to conflicts in Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, and Eritrea. While the world’s resources and attention are focused on Ukraine, these other conflicts haven’t gone away. Russians are also protesting the war in Ukraine, at considerable risk to themselves; there may also be Russians who need to seek political asylum in other countries. I hope the situation in Ukraine provides important lessons on why asylum matters. The U.S. has extended temporary protections to Ukrainians who are already in the U.S., but at the same time, it continues to use COVID-19 as a pretext to block asylum seekers from crossing the southern border and seeking protection. It is irrational and unreasonable and a sad indictment of U.S. leadership when it comes to human rights.

There are reports of discrimination against refugees of color fleeing ukraine. What do you know?

The UN High Commissioner of Refugees has acknowledged instances of differential treatment for people of color fleeing Ukraine. The country is a big locus for students from developing nations because it is financially accessible. There are troubling reports that they have been denied access to bomb shelters; made to wait longer and in separate lines for transportation and while attempting to leave via the Ukraine/Polish border. This treatment isn’t state policy, as such; it is carried out by individual non-state actors. But that makes it no less disturbing. Harassment has been reported on the Polish side as well, and I am sure we’ll hear more. I am not surprised because we have been seeing the growth of populist and far-right movements in Europe in recent years. It is a sad reminder that racism does not pause for conflicts, and we have a lot of work to do to tackle systemic racism, including in our refugee protection systems.  

What are some public health considerations for refugees in this crisis?

The UN estimates that as many as 4 million people may eventually flee the country. In this first wave of departures we’ve seen many women and children, and although they have arrived exhausted, cold and hungry, their needs have been relatively straightforward. As the conflict stretches on, however, we’re likely to see people arriving with more complex health needs as they flee under bombs and shelling. We also need to be mindful of COVID-19 risks. Ukraine has a vaccination rate of 35 percent for COVID 19 and it has low vaccination rates for other infectious diseases compared to the EU. Ukraine has an aging population and so care for chronic health conditions is important to consider. And there are mental health and psychosocial support needs which refugees might have. It is a particular type of anguish to leave your homeland without knowing what happened to the people you left behind or when, if ever, you might be able to return.