Insider view of helping Ukrainian refugees

By Mercy Corp.
News Release
Oregon headquartered international charity

The humanitarian situation in Ukraine is increasingly dire and desperate, thousands of people have been injured or killed. The ongoing war has torn families apart and millions have fled the country in search of safety. Meanwhile countless more people remain trapped without access to food, water, medical care, heating and electricity. Here’s what we know, and what we’re doing to help.

How are Ukrainians being affected by the crisis?

Over 5.6 million people have already fled Ukraine in recent days and the United Nations estimates 10 million Ukrainians—a quarter of the population—could be displaced, both inside and outside of the country. 2.9 million Ukrainians were already in need of urgent humanitarian assistance prior to the recent escalation of conflict and at least 1.5 million Ukrainians were already displaced within their country before fighting began.

Damage and destruction have reportedly left about 1.4 million people without access to piped water in eastern Ukraine and a further 4.6 million people across the country at risk of losing water supply. More than half of the Ukrainian population is located in the cities—the largest population centres are Dnipro, Kharkiv, Odessa, and Kyiv—urban fighting has resulted thousands of civilian casualties and significant infrastructure damage.

At least 42% of small businesses in Ukraine have ceased operations. According to a survey by the European Business Association, 42% of small businesses have closed, 31% have temporarily suspended work, and only 13% have managed to continue full, unrestricted operations as of March 14.

More than 6,500 civilian casualties have been confirmed:3,193 killed and 3,353 injured, according to the U.N. The actual figure could be considerably higher as many reported casualties have yet to be confirmed.

Who is most vulnerable?

We’re particularly concerned about the elderly (making up 1/3 of people in need of assistance) and people with disabilities. Older, vulnerable people are more likely to remain in their home villages, towns, and cities even with conflict ongoing.

We also know that of the Ukranians already displaced from conflict and in need of assistance, a significant percentage (13%) are people with disabilities. The inability of the elderly as well as people with disabilities to leave was a characteristic of the most recent conflict in Ukraine and in other conflicts in the region, including in Chechnya.

The U.N. has already received heartbreaking reports that children and adults with disabilities could not access shelters and have had to stay behind all alone as their families evacuated. The U.N. also warns that people with disabilities living in institutions are at a higher risk of abandonment since staff members are also leaving. There are 2.6 million people with disabilities registered in Ukraine, but the U.N. estimates there are at least 6.6 million.

What is the experience like for Ukrainian refugees?

The influx of Ukrainian refugees into Poland and Romania has gone way beyond what both countries have ever experienced. Accommodation options in the large cities are running short and protection risks are increasing.

The majority of people crossing are women and children, men aged 18-60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine and are being forced to stay behind and fight. People are disoriented and in shock when they arrive, and while some have family and friends in Poland, Romania or other EU countries they are going to meet, many don’t know what their next move is.

There is a great need for information, legal assistance, medical assistance, cash, and psychosocial support. Even though there are a lot of offers for support, like transportation, there isn’t clear information for arriving Ukranians to know what kind of help they can get. Local authorities, volunteers and organizations at the border are doing their best to provide assistance but do not have the capacity or resources to support such a huge and potentially sustained influx of refugees.

Mercy Corps CEO Tjada D’Oyen McKenna provides an update on the situation at the border between Poland and Ukraine in the following video:


A 38-year-old Ukrainian woman who managed to escape Kyiv shared this with us:

“I don’t remember what day it is, I don’t remember what I’m wearing, and what I ate today. All I remember is that in Kyiv, in the basement of the maternity hospital, my own sister remained, who should have had a planned cesarean, who cannot get her ultrasound done and there is not enough medicine.

It is mostly women and children who are crossing, very often with pets and very limited luggage. We see abandoned children’s strollers as the buses/trains are so crowded that children need to be carried. We hear about people unable to use their wheelchairs or walking aids because of overcrowded transit. People cross with no information and we’re really concerned about possible trafficking, abuse and exploitation, though local groups are working hard to spread anti-trafficking information.

We are seeing and hearing that volunteers, the core of the response, are running out of energy, and that local organizations are facing a rapidly growing crisis and need more support.

We’ve also observed first-hand the challenges third-country nationals are having while trying to cross from Ukraine into Poland. Young students and migrant laborers from Asia and Africa (mostly young, single men) arriving get very little or no reception. They often wait for hours for transport. Many haven’t slept or eaten for days, and there is virtually no or very fragmented information for them, including whether they are eligible to stay in Poland, whether they can travel freely with a passport stamp and whether they can go on to other EU countries. We’ve also heard reports of physical violence against them. That’s why we’re supporting local organizations in Poland focused on supporting these marginalized groups.

We are deeply concerned by and condemn all discriminatory behavior. All people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and every person fleeing Ukraine in search of safety—no matter their race or nationality—should be welcomed. There is never a justification for racism.

What humanitarian assistance is needed?

As the war continues, we expect the greatest humanitarian needs to be food, shelter, non-food items, water, and sanitation services, and cash. We expect the conflict will significantly affect health systems and create an uptick of preventable infectious diseases, including COVID‑19. COVID‑19 vaccination campaigns, as well as immunization campaigns for Polio, have been disrupted.

The World Health Organization has warned that Ukrainian hospitals are running dangerously low on oxygen supplies and could exhaust their supplies in the coming days. Hospitals, clinics and health centers also urgently need generators and fuel.

Internal displacement camps will be necessary in numerous areas.

What effect will the Ukraine crisis have on other humanitarian crises?

Ukraine is one of the world’s leading exporters of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil, including for the World Food Program. Any impact on grain harvests will impact many other economies, and will have a knock-on effect on global food prices. For example, the economic impact of the conflict on countries in the Middle East is extremely concerning, especially for countries experiencing severe humanitarian crises and heightened food insecurity, such as Yemen, Syria and Lebanon. These countries are dependent on imported food and fuel, which people struggle to afford. Lebanon lacks strategic wheat reserves following the Beirut blast, and imports a vast majority of its wheat and other grains from Russia or Ukraine. This could result not only in price hikes but country wide shortages in the coming months. For many Lebanese, bread has become one of the few affordable foods available to much of the population struggling to survive a major economic collapse.

It is essential that current international attention on Ukraine accounts for the devastating secondary impact this conflict will have on many countries in the Middle East already suffering from war and economic collapse.

What is Mercy Corps doing to help?

Mercy Corps is on the ground in Ukraine, Romania, and Poland, working quickly to understand the evolving humanitarian needs as we respond. We are currently funding local organizations that know their community needs best and are already working quickly to provide assistance to refugees and Ukrainians inside the country. Local organizations we’re supporting are distributing items like medical supplies and food staples, including into eastern Ukraine, and supporting marginalized groups like third-country nationals crossing into neighboring countries.

As our response gets underway, we plan to provide emergency cash assistance and connect people on the move with information, such as where to access basic services, information on safe routes, and legal rights. We expect the greatest needs to be in eastern Ukraine as intense conflict decimates food supplies, infrastructure and access to water, electricity, healthcare, and all essential services.
Emergency cash assistance

As part of our response we plan to provide emergency cash assistance to Ukrainian refugees to meet their urgent needs in transit – likely through Romania, Poland and Moldova. We hope to provide emergency cash inside of Ukraine, which will depend on the stability and accessibility of local markets as well as cash liquidity.

Right now we know supplies are running out in urban areas facing intense conflict. We also know that towns and cities in the west of Ukraine have grown two or three fold with the influx of displaced people, and cannot respond to all the needs.

In the coming days our teams will be working to determine how much cash people need to meet their most basic needs such as food and shelter. It is important that before we begin providing cash assistance, we determine the most efficient and effective way, whether that is through mobile money or pre-paid cards that can be used at stores or ATMs.

In the midst of crisis, where markets are operational, we provide cash so that people are able to buy what they need for their families. That cash can take the form of currency, paper vouchers, e-vouchers, mobile money transfers, and pre-paid debit cards.

Mercy Corps is a leader in cash-based aid. Cash gives people the freedom of choosing what they need the most; and cash supports local markets and helps businesses stay afloat and provide the necessary items people need. We use many different approaches to ensure we respond appropriately to the local conditions and needs of a given emergency. In 2021, we reached 3.6 million people across 23 countries with cash and voucher assistance. In partnership with communities, local government, and civil society groups, last year alone, Mercy Corps distributed over $65 million in cash transfers and voucher aid globally.
Connecting people to information

We’re seeing huge information gaps that make refugees even more vulnerable, particularly women traveling alone with children – the vast majority of refugees leaving Ukraine currently. As part of our response, we will focus on connecting people on the move with reliable, verified information, such as where to access basic services, information on safe routes, and legal rights. We believe that through responsive information services, we can empower people in crisis to make informed critical decisions on the issues that matter most to them.

The vast majority of refugees crossing over are women with children. While some will go to meet family or friends, many don’t know what their next move is and are unsure where to access information and support for accommodations, legal rights or safe transit routes. Being in a new location and bringing what little they could carry, and without their normal ways to cope, they are especially vulnerable to exploitation including abuse and trafficking.

At a time when they desperately need additional assistance, many people with disabilities and elderly people must cope with less support. The routines and care that they previously relied on are stressed or entirely gone, making it much harder to meet their health needs and access information, food and water, and complete basic yet essential tasks such as heating their homes.

Our teams will be working to identify the types of information most needed, and the most effective way to distribute that information – whether that is through social media platforms, websites, or SMS messages.

Mercy Corps has focused on information services for refugees in other contexts, including the European refugee crisis in 2015. One of our initiatives is called Signpost, a responsive information program, enabling rapid and personalized information responses for vulnerable populations. Signpost and its digital platforms create usable, relevant, and trustworthy information that meets the needs of users on the platforms they know and trust, including social media, a service map, and a website. The project is a global partnership between IRC and Mercy Corps and supports teams in 16 countries, and has reached 2 million people.
Advocating for humanitarian needs

A diplomatic solution agreed upon by all parties to the conflict is urgently needed to avert humanitarian catastrophe in Ukraine and a mass displacement crisis in the region, including re-establishing the Budapest Agreement as a baseline for dialogue. All sides must ensure that rapid and unimpeded humanitarian assistance continues to reach the most vulnerable people. All sides must ensure civilians and civilian infrastructure are protected at all times, including at times of active hostilities in alignment with International Humanitarian Law and norms. Additionally, the protection of civilians and their movements either internally or externally must be respected and their rights upheld.

Mercy Corps urges the U.S. and other governments to target sanctions in a way that does not infringe on the livelihoods of ordinary civilians and protects their ability to provide for themselves and their families, recognizing that sanctions will be inevitable.

Mercy Corps calls on international donors to utilize the expertise of and directly fund local organizations who have contextual knowledge and deep roots in communities both inside Ukraine and in refugee-receiving countries. The vibrant civil society in this region should be supported throughout this crisis and response.

Mercy Corps urges all countries involved to quickly address the bureaucratic and administrative impediments that too often thwart humanitarian response. These include addressing any visa and registration challenges for humanitarian workers, delays in accessing populations in need and providing mechanisms to deconflict humanitarian activities with the range of armed actors on the ground. We hope rapid efforts can be made especially in providing a corridor for humanitarian actors and convoys of essential food and medical supplies to get into and out of Ukraine.

Mercy Corps believes that every person, in any conflict around the world, has the right to unobstructed freedom of movement. While humanitarian coordinators can provide a short window for civilians trapped in conflict to move to safe locations, these corridors are not the end all be all. The international community should work to ensure every person in Ukraine has unfettered access to reach safety in the country of their choosing.

What is Mercy Corps’ experience working in Ukraine?

Mercy Corps provided humanitarian assistance in Ukraine from 2015-2017 following the 2014 conflict. We provided urgent humanitarian assistance in eastern Ukraine (Luhansk and Donetsk Oblasts) and reached more than 200,000 people. We distributed emergency cash, food, water and sanitation supplies, restored war-damaged homes, and provided small-business development grants and training to help people earn income and support themselves and their families. Here are more details of our work:

– We distributed desperately needed food parcels to over 100,000 people in towns in eastern Ukraine as well as urgently needed water and sanitation services. We focused on the most vulnerable civilians – people who are bedridden, disabled, single parent families, and the elderly, as well as those who do not receive any social benefits or regular income.
– We restored war-damaged homes and provided materials or completed house repairs benefiting over 300 households. We worked on a ‘one dry-and-warm room’ principle to repair houses that have been severely damaged by conflict.
– Mercy Corps provided families with emergency cash so families could purchase what they needed.
– We provided small-business development grants to help people earn some income and keep the local economy going. These grants included a seven-day business plan training session and eight weeks of mentoring.
– Mercy Corps also established and ran a help hotline advertised in newspapers and posters in government and non-government controlled areas. If people required assistance for food, water, and other support, they were able to call the hotline. Mercy Corps community mobilizers then conducted visits to assess details and vulnerability to ensure the right support is provided.
As an impartial and independent aid organization, Mercy Corps worked in both government-controlled and non-government controlled areas.

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