16:15 08.07.2022

The government needs to think about reconstruction of Ukraine in a big way - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

14 min read
The government needs to think about reconstruction of Ukraine in a big way - UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi

An exclusive interview with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi for the Interfax-Ukraine News Agency


- Mr. Grandy, I welcome you to Kyiv. Please tell us about the purpose of your visit. What questions would you like to clarify for yourself, what problems would you like to help solve?

- As you know I am the head of the UN refugee organization. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused  the largest displacement situation that we have seen probably since the Second World War: refugees, internally displaced people in Ukraine. We estimate 12-13, maybe 14 mln people have been pushed out of their homes by the war. I have seen myself this morning, yesterday in Bucha, Makariv, Irpin terrible destruction. No wonder that people have left in large numbers. Therefore for the UN refugee organization it is very important to be here, help people who are displaced and work with the government in trying to give a humanitarian response to this crisis. I came here to support the team that we have here. UNHCR has a team of almost 300 people throughout the country.

I came here above all with a message of solidarity for all those displaced but also for all those that are suffering the consequences of this terrible war and to discuss with the government how we can improve the response, especially with winter coming very soon.

- First of all, I would like to ask question about Ukrainian refugees who went to Europe. How would you rate what should be done for them first of all? There are national governments, the EU and your administration. How are they all supposed to work together?

- The EU in the first days of March just 10 days after Russian attack established a measure, took very important decision that all refugees, all people fleeing from Ukraine would receive what is called temporary protection. This is a special provision applied for the first time in the EU. This was a very good decision I think because it allowed refugees from Ukraine to move around at least the Schengen space of Europe, so most of Europe, to have access to jobs, services and to be able to stay without being sent away from the EU. That was very important, very forward looking, not only very humane but very practical, useful. Because a lot of the problems that refugees are facing in many countries were avoided through this measure.

I have travelled throughout all of Europe to see Ukrainian refugees. What I have seen is a lot of solidarity by European people, a lot of sympathy, a lot of  support and that have been very helpful. But of course the more this war continues the more shelling, bombing of the cities the more difficult it becomes.

First of all I think most of refugees will wait for more security to come back to the country before returning to Ukraine. And then there is always the risk that this solidarity becomes more tired. It is unfortunately effect of life. I think that it is still very strong but we must do everything possible to ensure that Ukrainians that are still in Europe and that will continue to be in Europe for some time, continue to have good access to services, employment if they need it and be able to stay there. With the government of Ukraine we have discussed how we can coordinate better in order to avoid any fatigue to happen in the hospitality to Ukrainians and work with the European commission and member states.

You ask very important question. The coordination has been very good. All the main host countries (except Moldova which is a separate case, because it is not in the EU) are part of the EU or part of Schengen space like Switzerland for example. Remember, these are countries with resources, so they were able to help the directly the refugees. My organization, other agencies of the UN, NGOs - we have all been present and we have helped the governments and the European commission in very well-coordinated system. And of course we have kept in touch with government here.

This is a bit difficult to explain, but I want to say it. In many countries we help refugees who are escaping from their government, because their government is abusing or is in internal conflict. Here it is not the case. The Ukrainians are not fleeing from the Ukrainian government, they are fleeing from Russian invasion, Russian military action. The coordination includes also the Ukrainian government that of course has an interest in ensuring that the Ukrainian people are not exploited, abused, that separated children can be reunified with their families. So there is also coordination we have discussed today further with Ukrainian government which we will continue to do.

- You play a coordinating role. But do you have any financial means to help Ukrainian refugees both in Ukraine and abroad?

- I would say that up to now, 5-6 months, resources have not been the biggest problem. But of course we have to see how long this situation will continue. For the time being governments have put resources to European commission, lots of resources. Even private citizens, private organizations, civil society have poured in an enormous amount of resources to help Ukrainian refugees.

I am very hopeful that it will continue but I am also a realistic person and I think that we need to make sure that this continues. Also going forward, it is also important that resources continue to flow inside Ukraine. Remember, when we talk about 12-13 mln people it is not only refugees outside but also displaced people inside Ukraine and other people that maybe cannot even be displaced because they are prisoners in besieged cities.

So I think it is important to continue to mobilize resources. Today we discussed with your government also when will people return. We know that some people have already returned, some people are coming back to check, to be together with their families, because many have split families, and then go back to other countries. and other people are not going back.

The majority of refugees tell us: "We want to go back but we want the security to improve". But I think when talk about resources it is important also to think of two things especially: preparation for winter here in Ukraine especially which will be very harsh and also return - what needs to be done so that people feel comfortable returning. Security - this is not about money, this is another issue. But what about schools that are currently used as collective accommodation? We are working with government to transfer people to other centers so that in September when schools open children can go back including children who may come back for school year. This is just an example. So we are trying to think a bit more as a strategy with the government: how can we support when time comes to return of people.

- Can your agency help solve the very serious housing problem for displaced people in Ukraine? Currently, a lot of temporary housing is being built in Ukraine. Can such help be provided, especially since you have experience in building such housing in other countries?

- We are already working with the government for some months. I remember in March I came to Lviv and I discussed it with government. They told me already then (this  was in the second month of the war) that this is a priority. Absolutely right. I am speaking now about UNHCR, but of course there are many other organizations. As an example, we have created together with government about 70 000 sleeping places in collective and other accommodations. We have provided something that we call emergency kit. If their house is damaged people can repair one or two rooms so that they can live there. I have seen it today in Makariv for example and other places. This is not a solution for a long time, but temporary solution is very important because it can be very quick. We have provided about 25 000, we are planning another 25 000. Also we are starting now to help the government with repairs. If the house is completely destroyed it needs reconstruction. We are not equipped for that. But repairing damaged houses, many people need that - this we can do.

We are working on that. For example I saw today a destroyed house. We have provided a kind of small prefabricated unit where people can spend a few months. We will continue to do that but the government needs to think about reconstruction in a big way. We understand that this is very difficult.

I was in Lugano, Switzerland. The prime-minister was there and it was very interesting - the way he spoke about recovery, this is the short term, and this is what we are contributing to but then the reconstruction once the war is over, that is a bigger operation. But we need to plan all the steps at the same time - starting from the recovery, and this is what we are working on. We are not the only one. There are many other organizations, we help government coordinate this response for housing.

- You said that up to 300 people work in the UN Refugee Agency in Ukraine. Please tell us in detail what they do.

- I can assure you that they're very busy, they work 24/7. We have a very large program of giving cash money to people. This is exactly in line with government program. The government has the main program. But the government has asked organizations like mine to complement, add recourses to their program. Many of my colleagues are working on the program that at the moment is reaching about half a million people but we are planning in the next couple of months to raise it to about 1 mln people. This is not enough but it is quite a large program to help the most vulnerable, those that are most in need, elderly people, people with disabilities, women that may have suffered violence and so for. Then we are busy as I told you with housing issues and emergency repairs. Then we have been able to use our own resources to source, mobilize many things that people need that they have lost  during the shelling for example, like container for the water, blankets.

 Finally, very important, we do protection work. I can give you some concrete examples. Many people have legal challenges. Today in Makariv I met an elderly lady. She is keeping her family together, but she has a huge issue with inheritance because before the war she didn't complete properly the inheritance procedures. So we offer free of charge working with Ukrainian organization legal services so that she can resolve these problems and have access to whatever assistance she is entitled to.

We help separated families be together. We give (and this is an important issue that we discussed with deputy prime minister) psycho-social support to people that have been traumatized or to women that have suffered violence during the most acute, violate phases of the conflict in some cities in the East for example. So these are types of issues that my colleagues are busy with. We are very practical organization but we are here really to support government doing its job and we work under their leadership.

- In Ukraine, there is a very painful problem related to the flee, or rather the deportation of Ukrainians to Russia. Many Ukrainians left for Russia during the war, and not all of them voluntarily. Please tell me, do you have contact with the Russian government regarding these people, what access do you have to these people, can they contact your agency for help?

- Russian government reports that over 1 mln Ukrainians are in Russia. This is more or less the same figure that was reported by Ukrainian government. We have a presence in Russia, small presence in Moscow. We have been there for many years.

Our access to the Ukrainian population there is very limited. It's not absent, we do have some access, but it's extremely limited. We have been able to visit a few collective centers where Ukrainians are accommodated, but it's really a very small number. If the total number as reported is 1 mln we only saw the few of them. This issue was raised with me by the government and also in the past few weeks. We will continue to insist to have like we have in all other countries unfettered access to Ukrainians citizens in Russia. For sure Ukrainians are able if they wish to contact the UNHCR office if they can do that. We know that many of them have issues of resources, that they need resources to be able to survive, so we are working with Russian Red Cross and other institutions to try to help them. But it's a very complex issue given the limited access but we will continue to work on that.

There is one issue that is particularly of concern, you have heard that UN already speak about that - it is the reports (we have no confirmation because we are not able to access) that children that are taken from institutions in areas occupied in Ukraine are transferred and efforts are made to adopt them or to naturalize them. There we have provided publicly, we are on record on that, the advice that adoption and naturalization of children, unaccompanied children is not advised in situations of emergency because before any adoption you have to make sure that the child is unaccompanied, that he doesn't have a family. In order to do these things children may not be able to choose themselves. But there are procedures - we call it best interest of the child - that need to be followed before these processes of adoption of naturalization are carried out. And they cannot be carried out during active war, active conflict. So we are telling the Russian Federation, we actually are telling all governments, including in Europe, that this is not the time for adoption or for naturalization. We've been very clear and I want to repeat it again: this is not a practice that is advised from any points of view in this type of situation and should not be done.

- Many of the Ukrainians who ended up in the Russian Federation lost their documents: they were lost or destroyed. Is there any way your administration can help these people get refugee documents or other documents?

- You are right, this is a big issue, it's actually a big issue even here, inside Ukraine because this is one of the areas where we are helping people. But here there is no problem, we can help.

When refugees are in another country the only ones who can issue documents are the governments of those countries. Sometimes in some countries they ask us to do it on their behalf but the request has to come from them. This request has not come from the Russian Federation. But we discussed this matter with government and we told them that we will see what the options are. If there are people who for example want to travel out of the Russian Federation, go to other countries, come back to Ukraine, they should have a right to do it. We are available to help with the documentation but we need to agree with Russian government to do that.

- We would like this war to end as soon as possible, but is your administration ready for further work for months, and perhaps years, with Ukrainian settlers?

- You are right. Let's hope it's over soon. But of course as long as needed we are going to be with you.