'Out of sight, out of mind': Humanitarian crisis worsens in Ukraine as world focuses on Syria, Iraq

Canada extended its military training mission in Ukraine this week, but the country needs more help to help ease the escalating humanitarian crisis, say an MP and a human rights advocate who just visited the country.

Canadian delegation travels to region to hear first-hand accounts of 4-year conflict

A Ukrainian serviceman guards an area of the government-held town of Avdiyivka near the front line of the war between government troops and Russian-separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. The protracted war has killed around 10,000 people and displaced close to two million, according to UN figures. (Oleksandr Klymenko/Reuters)

Canada extended its military training mission in Ukraine this week, but the country needs more help to help ease the escalating humanitarian crisis, say an MP and a human rights advocate who just returned from the country.

Ontario Conservative MP Tony Clement travelled to Kyiv last week to meet with government officials and others and was surprised to learn of the huge scale of the crisis caused by the four-year conflict. 

"This is a hot war, not a cold war, in Eastern Ukraine," Clement told CBC News. "There are casualties every day, soldiers and civilians. A lot of the world's attention is focused on Mosul, Syria and Iraq, but this war is a war, as well, and there are many people affected."

According to UN figures, at least 10,000 people have been killed, including 2,000 civilians, and another 23,000 injured in the fighting between the Ukrainian military and the combined Russian-separatist forces in Eastern Ukraine. Another estimated two million people have been affected, many of whom were forced to flee their homes and are now living with limited access to water, food, heat and electricity.

Calling the situation "dire," Clement said Ukraine is no longer front of mind for most Canadians and others in the West, even though it's a war taking place within Europe.

"I think that's the way Putin wants it," he said. "This is where it gets very dangerous for the sovereignty of Ukraine and the order in Europe, which, of course, Putin wants to disrupt. So, it fits in to his geopolitical game."

Clement hopes to meet with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland to relay his findings and make recommendations on how Canada could best help.

'A heartbreaking situation'

While the needs are great both for immediate supplies and long-term institution-building, he said rampant corruption is a huge barrier. Many civilians are left without health and social services as the Ukraine government spends its limited funds on weapons and ammunition to fight the Russia-backed rebels in the east of the country.

The war in Eastern Ukraine began in early spring of 2014 after the popular uprising that ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Soon after Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula in March of that year, it began sending troops and military equipment across the border into Eastern Ukraine to support pro-Russia separatists in the region.

Majed El Shafie, founder of the non-governmental organization One Free World International walks amid the rubble of a former school in Slovyansk, Eastern Ukraine, that was attacked by rockets in 2014. (Submitted by Majed El Shafie)

Clement and Saskatchewan Conservative MP Cathay Wagantall travelled to see the impact of the conflict as observers with the non-governmental organization One Free World International.

The sad reality is that nobody cares about Ukraine any more.- Majed El Shafie, One Free World International

Founder and president Majed El Shafie said the trip's goal was to raise awareness within Parliament and among the public about escalating violence and the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the region.

"The sad reality is that nobody cares about Ukraine any more," he said in an interview. "Ukraine only comes when there is a conflict [reported] in the media. The truth and reality is that everybody is focused on the Middle East, and nobody cares about the refugees in Ukraine, and they are in a very desperate situation.

"It's a heartbreaking situation, and for the Western media, it's out of sight, out of mind."

Corruption diverting aid

El Shafie said making sure much-needed aid reaches the people instead of the black market is a challenge because of widespread corruption.

Since the onset of the crisis, Canada has provided more than $27 million in humanitarian assistance funding to help those affected by the conflict in Eastern Ukraine.

A member of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic forces, who support a separation from Ukraine, inspects a building damaged during battles with Ukrainian armed forces in Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine, on Feb. 23, 2017. (Alexander Ermochenko/Reuters)

A government official told CBC that the funding goes toward things such as "emergency basic health services, food assistance, protection services, emergency shelters and essential relief items."

"We continue to monitor the situation to ensure humanitarian needs are met, and we remain prepared to respond further, as appropriate," the official said.

El Shafie said some people he spoke with in Ukraine consider Canada to be in a much better position to help than the U.S. because of the suspicions around the U.S. administration's alleged communication with and possible ties to Russia. Ukrainians are feeling increasingly more distant from the West, he said.

Extending military mission

Freeland and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan announced this week that Canada's military training mission in Ukraine will extend to March 2019. The UNIFIER operation is providing military instruction and capacity building and helping with small team training, explosive ordnance disposal, military policing, medical training and modernizing logistics.

Peter Maurer, president of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) wrapped up his own five-day visit to Ukraine Friday, and expressed "alarm" with the living conditions of large masses of people affected by the fighting in the east.

"Hundreds of thousands of people are living under the perpetual threat of shelling, shooting, and landmines," Maurer said in a statement. "Their access to basics like food, water and electrical power has been dramatically curtailed."

The Donetsk water filtration station, which tens of thousands of people depend on, has been repeatedly disrupted because of the fighting. He repeated the ICRC's call to establish a series of safe zones to better protect critical water, gas and electricity installations on the front line.

Canadian military instructors and Ukrainian servicemen take part in a military exercise at the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre in Yavoriv, Ukraine, on July 12, 2016. Canada's military training mission in Ukraine will extend to March 2019. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)


Kathleen Harris

Senior producer, Politics

Kathleen Harris is the senior producer for CBC.ca in the CBC's Parliament Hill bureau.