The world is facing an unprecedented level of humanitarian emergencies. While the ongoing conflict in Ukraine has precipitated a humanitarian tragedy and threatens future global food security, the situation is increasingly worsened by natural disasters fueled by climate change and environmental degradation. At this pivotal time, global leaders are uniquely poised to bring their power to the aid of millions.
Please join Dr. Paul Spiegel, Director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Humanitarian Health, WHO Emergency Coordinator for the Ukrainian refugee response, and Professor of the Practice in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (JHSPH) and our host Kevin Kajiwara for an important discussion on the current humanitarian and refugee crises, the state of food insecurity around the world, and how corporate leaders can catalyze action and seize this opportunity to make concrete and substantial commitments to address the needs of those affected.
Outset of the War in Ukraine
Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there was a mass wave of refugees attempting to enter Poland from Ukraine. This refugee crisis, which has become the largest refugee movement in Europe since World War II, was immediately very different than other crises. People from all over Europe were driving to Ukraine, willing to welcome refugees into their homes, and there were well organized food and telecom services available. There were even people who were able to flee with their pets, which is usually unheard of in these situations. This level of organization was possible because major organizations like the WHO and Doctors Without Borders were already in Ukraine preparing for this moment before Russia began their invasion.
Psychologically, however, these refugees weren’t ready to leave Ukraine. They didn’t expect the scale of the invasion, and men had to stay behind to fight, so the refugees were leaving behind their family members. Mental health support is therefore one of the most important issues at hand, while also being one of the most challenging issues because of language barriers and cultural differences.
Europe’s Reaction to the Ukrainian Refugee Crisis
At the start of the attack, Europeans quickly opened their homes to Ukrainians, but it is difficult to track where all the refugees have ended up. We know that there were 3.7 million Ukrainians in Poland at one point, but it is difficult to know how many have stayed. The largest numbers of refugees are in Poland, followed by Germany and the Czech Republic however, we don’t have exact numbers.
The EU very quickly decreed that Ukrainian refugees would have free access within the EU. They would be able to work and access education and healthcare at the same level as nationals. This is not the case in most refugee situations. In fact, when Syrian refugees were attempting to enter Europe, EU countries were not nearly as welcoming and put up barriers to stop the refugees from gaining access to their countries. It was very clear to organizers and to Syrian refugees that white, Christian refugees were very much welcomed, while non-white and non-Christian refugees were not.
Effect of Smartphones on Refugee Crises
Starting with the Syrian crisis, organizers noticed that most refugees had some sort of smartphone with them when they were coming off the boats. This allowed them to keep in touch with their families, alert them of their location and communicate with other refugees, particularly on WhatsApp. This prompted organizations to set up charging stations wherever the refugees were.
Ukrainian refugees also have smartphones, which has helped to track which cities need the most support. Facebook and Meta weren’t able to provide exact numbers of refugees in different cities, but by tracking which cities had the most engagement, they were still able to know where to focus their efforts. The ubiquity of smartphones also enabled 1-800 numbers to be quickly established and for information to be easily spread through QR codes.
Effects of a Long War
No-one expected this war to go on for so long. Ukrainian refugees, especially those who have been separated from their male relatives, very much want to return to Ukraine. The people hosting refugees in their homes and business also didn’t expect the war to last so long, and it’s unlikely the will to shelter these people will remain as strong as time passes. Countries also need to worry about resentment growing in their populations if refugees are seen as being given more resources than other vulnerable populations within their countries.
There is also a continuing need for money and other resources to support these refugees. While it is easy to send money to large international NGOs, the money really needs to be getting to local municipalities. Unfortunately, money sent to national organizations or to the central government doesn’t always reach these municipalities. They need to figure out a way to verify local groups and funnel money to them instead of to the large organizations. They are also seeing high levels of burn out from the volunteering doctors and psychologists, meaning they won’t be able to continue to volunteer indefinitely. Eventually these doctors will need to be paid.
Food Insecurity and Instability in Africa
Russia and Ukraine are top producers of grain, cereals, vegetable oils and other food products. Those supplies are now constrained due to the war, and future harvests are also threatened. Meanwhile, other major producers such as China, Brazil and India are having their crops impacted by climate change. There are also still logistics and shipping issues from the pandemic that further exacerbate the issue of food insecurity.
Due to these issues, countries in East Africa are already seeing high increases in malnutrition. There will be a great deal of death in the Middle East and Africa due to this crisis unless there is a great increase in funding directed at assuaging these issues. This funding is unlikely to come as the focus is still on Ukraine. Famine and death will likely lead to political instability in Somalia, Lebanon and Mozambique.
These issues, along with others, will likely cause a migration crisis, with many Africans attempting to migrate to wealthier African countries like South Africa or leave Africa altogether and migrate to Europe or the United States. There is little political will in Europe or the United States to accept these migrants, so there are fears these countries will create barriers to entry and further degrade their asylum laws in an effort to keep these refugees out of their countries.