EU flies in aid to Ukraine, but how will it reach most in need?

Christos Stylianides, European commissioner for humanitarian aid and crisis management, checks humanitarian aid that will be sent to Ukraine. Delivering much-needed humanitarian aid to the conflict-torn state is fraught with challenges. Photo by: Genya Savilov / European Union

As the winter sets in, the European Union has increased its humanitarian aid to the war-battered population of eastern Ukraine. Aid organizations in the region, however, are struggling to get the assistance through to the afflicted population.

During a recent visit to Ukraine’s capital Kiev, European Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides announced that the European Commission — the EU’s executive arm — would provide an additional 15 million euros ($16.92 million) in aid, bringing the total contribution from the EU and its 28 member states to 95 million euros.

“The humanitarian crisis in Ukraine is becoming more critical every day,” Stylianides said after a meeting with the country’s President Petro Poroshenko. “This additional EU aid package is essential for the many struggling to survive in harsh conditions.”

The announcement came just days after Russian-backed separatist forces launched a devastating missile attack on the coastal city of Mariupol, killing 30 inhabitants and leaving thousands without shelter. The fighting left a fragile cease-fire, agreed by the two parties in September in the Belarusian capital Minsk, in tatters.

‘We are like neighbors’

The crisis in Ukraine has displaced more than 900,000 people within the country and forced 600,000 to flee abroad. Around 1.4 million people in eastern Ukraine are in urgent need of assistance.

Commissioner Stylianides traveled to the region to witness the arrival of aid supplies in Dnipropetrovsk, a government-held city close to the battle zone. Most of the relief items were flown in by three cargo planes. From Dnipropetrovsk, the supplies are being transported by truck to affected populations on both sides of the front lines. Some 85 tons of relief supplies have been transported, consisting mostly of tents, blankets, sleeping bags and warm clothes, as well as heating devices and tarpaulin sheets.

Relief items were provided by 11 EU member states — Germany, Poland, Austria, Finland, Denmark, France, Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Croatia and Slovenia — through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism run by ECHO, the commission’s humanitarian aid arm. Remarkably, half of the countries that joined last week’s aid effort are former communist-bloc countries, where the Ukrainian crisis is felt most sharply.

For the Czech aid organization People In Need, Ukraine has become its biggest operation after the Syria crisis. PIN’s desk officer for Ukraine Vladislav Vik told Devex that there is a lot of sympathy for Ukraine in the Czech Republic.

“We are like neighbors,” he said. “Many individuals and companies have offered money and in-kind support, like clothes, roofing material and transport to bring it to Ukraine free of charge.”

Aid delivery challenges

PIN has been working in Ukraine since 2003, mainly to support civil society and free media programs. In February 2014, it began providing medical assistance following the bloody street protests on Kiev’s Independence Square against the regime of then-President Viktor Yanukovich. In August 2014, the aid organization set up offices in Donetsk and the small nearby town of Slavyansk, on opposing sides of the battle front.

“Our biggest problem is in Donetsk,” Vik said. “It’s hard to get aid deliveries to the people who need them, because there are many armed groups and battalions that are not under the control of the authorities of the Donetsk and Lugansk Peoples’ Republics. This makes for an unpredictable situation.”

The greatest danger does not come from the variety of fighters on the rebel side but “from fighting and shelling,” he added.

Another challenge is finding enough partner organizations.

“The problem is that many people have fled, but fortunately we get assistance from local organizations and communities,” Vik noted.

PIN is working with two expats in Donetsk, four in Slavyansk and more than 80 local staff members in the region.

Besides PIN, other agencies that run operations from within rebel-held Donetsk are the International Committee of the Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières, while the U.N. refugee agency recently joined them by opening an office in late December.

“Our presence is a foothold, but a very important one to ensure protection and distribution of goods,” William Spindler, a spokesman from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, told Devex. “We have received assurances for our safety from the de facto authorities, but we’ve had very difficult negotiations to ensure access.”

An even greater challenge for humanitarian workers is the new set of regulations set up by the Ukrainian government. These include new security clearance procedures that require special documentation, and threaten to restrict the movements both of aid organizations and local people.

UNHCR has warned Kiev that these new security procedures may impede the provision of aid.

“It can also lead to more hardship and displacement, now that the Ukrainian authorities have cut funding and the provision of services to people in these areas, including the payment of pensions and social benefits,” Spindler said. “This can lead to more displacement and more hardship.”

New, returning aid groups

Most of the EU contributions are given by ECHO through cash and voucher programs managed by PIN, Save the Children and other international aid organizations in the region. This allows the beneficiaries to buy food or other items on the local market, or to pay utility bills for electricity or heating, according to their needs.

The fighting that erupted last year saw several humanitarian organizations resume operations in Ukraine, previously having wound down their programs in the country. The Danish Refugee Council had completed a six-year mission in January 2013, but returned last November to set up emergency relief operations for the internally displaced.

“We have a history in Ukraine and the established contact network, background knowledge and access to qualified staff,” said DRC’s head of international department, Ann Mary Olsen.

The DRC set up shop in Berdyansk, west of Mariupol in the government-held part of Donetsk province, to provide "winterization assistance" in the areas surrounding Berdyansk, Dnipropetrovsk and Mariupol.

The Norwegian Refugee Council too has opened its office in Severodonetsk in the province of Lugansk, where the local government authorities established themselves after the city of Lugansk was taken by separatist forces.

“There is an urgent need to repair damaged houses and to provide materials to insulate communal buildings in conflict areas where many of the displaced are staying,” according to Abdulrahman Shikmammadov, NRC’s head of operations in the region. “We must do all we can to prevent more people freezing to death.”

Will new security provisions impede the access of aid in Ukraine? What other obstacles are being faced by aid workers in the East of the country? Have your say by making a comment below.

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About the author

  • Diederik kramers

    Diederik Kramers

    Diederik Kramers is a freelance correspondent in Brussels covering EU and NATO affairs. A former spokesperson and communications officer for UNICEF and UNHCR, he previously worked as foreign desk and Eastern Europe editor for the Dutch press agency ANP and as editor-in-chief of the Dutch quarterly Ukraine Magazine.