UN refugees chief fears long war in Ukraine will worsen region's humanitarian disaster

A protracted war in Ukraine — which appears to be a growing possibility, based on Russia’s latest shift in strategy — could lead to years of disastrous humanitarian consequences, says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

Filippo Grandi says Europe's response to crisis proves it can help others in need

Filippo Grandi speaks to CBC chief political correspondent Rosemary Barton during his visit to Ottawa. (Benoit Roussel/CBC News)

A protracted war in Ukraine — which appears to be a growing possibility, based on Russia's latest shift in strategy — could lead to years of disastrous humanitarian consequences, says United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.

"In our experience as a humanitarian agency, these are the wars that are the most difficult to deal with in terms of humanitarian consequences," Grandi said in an interview airing Sunday on CBC's Rosemary Barton Live.

Grandi, an Italian diplomat who has led the UNHCR since 2016, spoke to Barton in Ottawa. He recently travelled to Ukraine and Poland to assess the worsening refugee crisis triggered by the war.

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According to UNHCR figures, nearly 4.4 million Ukrainians have fled their country since the Russian invasion began six weeks ago. That's about 10 per cent of the country's total population.

"It was like an ocean of people, a river of people moving out of Ukraine into neighbouring countries," Grandi said of the exodus.

"The most heartbreaking scenes were the separations between men and their families because men were staying behind to fight. And I had never seen anything like this."

WATCH | Top UN refugee official discusses situations in Ukraine, Afghanistan: 

Rich nations must develop non-discriminatory systems to manage refugees: UNHCR

4 months ago
Duration 13:50
Rosemary Barton Live speaks to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi in an exclusive interview about the refugee crisis in Ukraine and Afghanistan. He says the number of displaced people around the world is well over 90 million.

Europe must do more to welcome refugees, Grandi says

Most Ukrainian refugees have fled to neighbouring Poland, which has struggled to cope with the sudden and massive wave of people in need of shelter, health care and other basic services.

The UNHCR recently opened a temporary office in Kraków to help that city, which has taken in some 150,000 Ukrainians.

Grandi said Europe's response to the crisis demonstrates that the continent has the ability to welcome refugees, if not always the desire. He said similar offerings of help and hospitality were not extended to people fleeing conflict in other parts of the world, such as Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

"I've heard politicians, even in my own country, say [Ukrainians] are the real refugees, not the others. And that's a scandal that's profoundly racist and discriminatory," Grandi said.

"I think that there are lessons here to be learned for other refugees of other origins that will continue to go to Europe as a safe place."

'Glowing words' for Canada's response

Grandi, who met with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau during his visit to Ottawa, also praised Canada's response to recent refugee crises.

He commended the federal government for stepping up to welcome refugees in recent years, when the United States cut back on its resettlement programs under the Donald Trump administration.

A mother and her infant son shelter in an indoor sports stadium being used as a refugee centre in the village of Medyka, a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, on March 15. (Petros Giannakouris/The Associated Press)

"In the last few years, when resettlement really suffered a lot from cuts in the United States program, it was Canada that saved resettlement as a solution for many vulnerable refugees," he said.

"Now the U.S. is back with a big program, which is great, but if it hadn't been for Canada staying the course on resettlement ... we would have maybe lost the capacity to do this for many vulnerable people. And that deserves glowing words."

Ottawa has pledged to take in an unlimited number of Ukrainians fleeing the war, but concerns have been raised about the quality and availability of services for people when they arrive in Canada.

A strategy shift for Afghanistan

Grandi also noted a shift in the crisis facing Afghanistan. He said humanitarian agencies are now focusing largely on ensuring people still in the country can live safely, rather than facilitating more departures.

He said international groups must pressure the Taliban to improve its stance on humanitarian issues, even in the face of recent setbacks — such as the move to once again ban girls from attending high school.

"The response to that must be continuous engagement," Grandi said.

"We can't let Afghanistan go because if Afghanistan collapses as a state ... then we will have another colossal humanitarian emergency on our hands."


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