Geoff Wordley: “It looks like the main movements of IDPs have now stopped”

6 June 2016, 12:00

What is your assessment of the displacement situation today?

In situations like this you often see the displacement of young people. They want to move out because they have families and seek services, need schools and medical facilities. The older population is left behind as they find it much more difficult to leave the village.

That’s where you begin to see a terrible social distortion: there has been a lot of damage in villages, services are practically stopped, and the population is old. These people would have had the support of younger population previously, but are left in a desperate situation without them.

The worst thing is that no matter what the government, the international community or the UN do, they will never be able to put the villages back to where they had been prior to the conflict. Once the young people have moved out and become used to the services provided in big cities, the social and transport infrastructure, they often don’t move back.

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This type of conflict creates a long-term social and economic problem for the country in which it is taking place. In non-government controlled areas (NGCAs), there is no economic activity worth speaking about, generating any jobs or circulating currency on which people could live. That’s a very depressing economic state.

Whilst there has been no dramatic humanitarian emergency yet – in comparison to other places around the world – it could appear in the NGCAs. Certainly in terms of lack of food, but also the lack of heating next winter, as well as healthcare, supply of medicines for the population. The further down the line and the longer the economic blockade remains without moves to find political solutions, the more likely we are to see severe humanitarian hardships.

Aggravating the situation in NGCAs is that UN agencies and various NGOs have not been able to move freely there. Since July 2015, when the question of accreditation was first raised, we have had very little access to the zone along the line of contact. And since then we’ve been trying to find the right formula with the de facto authorities to unlock the door and permit full UN program to be carried out there. But for the moment it’s proving to be elusive.

In conclusion, I would say that I can see the advent of humanitarian crisis if the situation is allowed to go on without a strong ability for the UN to perform its functions.

The situation in the five oblasts outside the line of contact is also worth mentioning. There is no humanitarian crisis there – people have enough to eat and accommodation – but there is severe economic depression which prevents them from finding employment. Partly, this results from the lack of employment possibilities. But there are also bureaucratic hurdles. This is the area we would want to start addressing during the course of this year.

How do you expect these crises to develop further, what timeframe are we looking at? And what could be the priority steps to address the issues?

In terms of timeframe, we’ve just come through winter and that’s always a good part of year to test the situation in terms of the humanitarian aspect. Last winter, UNHCR had an extensive program for assisting people on both sides of the contact line. We were eventually allowed to carry out distributions which we felt were essential in Luhansk and Donetsk, and we appreciated that. We provided over $6.5mn worth of coal, heating fuel, clothing, and some cash. There were also other inputs.

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The problem is that with continued deterioration in economic situation, food may start to become scarce, and I think it is already becoming so. So we are advocating that pensions for people who are of pension age and are entitled to pension, whether displaced or not, should get it. As far as IDP benefits are concerned, the government perhaps has a legitimate concern about who claims those. But we would advocate that before undertaking ad-hoc measures to cut people off from these benefits, there should be a period of consultations with the UN. We do have expertise in terms of how to trackdisplacements, how to register them, and how to keep a better track of who is entitled to the benefits.

You monitor the situation with IDPs not just along the contact line, but all over the country. How would you describe the dynamics in terms of numbers, settlements, compared to the beginning of the crisis?

The UNHCR has done a pilot intention survey jointly with the Dnipropetrovsk National University looking at the possibility of running a much bigger survey in Ukraine that would look at the intentions of IDPs: what people expect – go home, under what conditions, or integrate locally?

At the moment, we don’t know in detail what people intend to do. But we think we are on the brink of being able to have a more extensive survey. I very much hope that we will be able to do this with the oblast government, or even with the national government in Kyiv. It would enable better planning.

Based on the pilot we have done (only in one oblast and not necessarily representative), we believe that the majority of displaced people say they want to integrate locally. What happened since the initial displacement s into Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Zaporizhzhia etc, is that the population has been shifting westward. A large group of IDPs are in Kyiv, Odesa and further west. But it looks like the main movements have now stopped. Where people are now is where they probably think they want to settle. That needs a very robust program for economic development so that we can these people can be able to get jobs. If we ask IDPs in government-controlled areas, what their main concerns are, the first one they will name is a job. The second problem is accommodation. This one is partly tied to the propyska system, as well as money. The third problem is health care. They are not obtaining a sufficient number of necessary drugs. That is particularly the case now in the NGCAs where for a number of months we’ve been hearing alarming stories about healthcare issues and the supply of drugs.

How do we address the needs of displaced people in terms of “durable solutions”? Start with legal aspects of how you define a displaced person. That means that we have to work with the government to look for the problems caused by the propyska system and to enable people to settle more easily.

Then, there are economic inputs. The UNHCR does not have a mandate for these things. This aspect needs a very broad, almost Marshall-plan type of thinking. In similar conflicts in the past, the international community provided large multi-donor trust funds with billions of dollars to help regenerate economy somewhat. But the starting point in getting to that kind of financial injection is security. And that means that political solution is needed first. I’m hopeful that if sings of political solution did come, the international community would be more than prepared to step in with this sort of financing and encouragement of investment from private investors.

What are the models Ukraine can use to find solutions to the current situation from previous conflicts elsewhere?

First of all, I have a good deal of respect for Ukraine as a whole. At the level of civil society, there has been a remarkable response to the initial displacements. Deep within society there was desire to assist these people and many community-based or national NGOs sprung up to address that. I’ve not seen anything like that anywhere in the places I’ve been to.

At the same time, I have a great deal of respect for the Ukrainian government. They have been paying these allowances to IDPs. I’m trying to think of other cases where such benefits were paid by the government and I can’t, apart perhaps for former Yugoslavia. Last year the total bill for IDP benefits was something around UAH 3bn. It’s not small money. And clearly there is frustration within the Administration that there can be fraud going on, so checking is legitimate. Keeping track of displacement is a notoriously difficult task for any government. Very advanced countries have had problems with that. The international community, in particular the UNHCR, should engage more with Ukraine’sgovernment to look and exchange ideas on how to track displaced persons in order to understand the dynamics of the displacement and enable planning, but also to better support them. Certainly one solution to the trackingdatabase problem would be more engagement with the UNHCR and Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). These organizations have the ability, a long reach to experts who know how to run these things and how to advice governments.

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What specifically has the UNHCR been doing, and what is your focus this year?

Following the initial displacements in 2014, UNHCR focused on providing basic humanitarian assistance mostly in the form of domestic items such as blankets, jerry cans, kitchen sets and even plastic sheets to assist people still living in damaged houses.  That quickly expanded to include cash based assistance. We had cash distribution programs reaching about 12,000 families over time and worth about $4-5mn.

Also, last year the UNHCR focused increasingly on supporting and capacity building of the emergent civil society.  We had two cash distributions in the latter half of the year and worked with many national NGOs, seven of which we were able to fund some activities. The organisations have become stronger as a result.  We were also able to carry-out over twenty quick-impact projects throughout the east including in the ATO, aimed as the title suggests at assisting the displaced and host communities, at the community level. The focus of this work is guided by the results of what we would call “Protection monitoring” conducted in concert with our partners. In it, we try to measure the status of the population and adjust our own interventions and advise other members of the UN and NGO community on the gaps needing to be addressed by humanitarian assistance.

During 2016 we will be focusing more towards helping people find longer-term solutions to their displacement, while withdrawing humanitarian aid in government-controlled areas somewhat. That’s why I mentioned propyska – we want to become more engaged with the government in looking for ways of enabling people to settle where they want. Housing and property is another area where we’d like to become involved. On the government-controlled side, we’re trying to become a bit more engaged in the legal support to the population. We are working with the Right to Protection, the Ukrainian national NGO, and have a very extensive monitoring and legal assistance network which is now being set up throughout not just eastern Ukraine but other areas of Ukraine as well to assist the displaced in making sure that they can get access to their rights – including benefits, compensation for damage etc.

In NGCAs along the contact line the situation is still so fluid that we will have to continue to engage in basic humanitarian assistance from which little comes out. It’s very short-term assistance and there is very little long-term thinking behind it. So, we have this two-tier system of assistance planned for this year. 

What we’d like to do more is work directly with NGOs. We have already signed seven partnership agreements which we funded with national NGOs. This has helped build them up into much more confident organizations. To name a few, these are Stantsia Kharkiv, Slavic Heart in Sviatohirsk, Mariupol Youth League, City Aid Center in Zaporizhzhia… All these NGOs were addressing the needs of the displaced by setting up community centers where people could come to look for assistance. Then the organizations have been trying to obtain through donations – much of that through local people. Now they are working with us. We can see that they could become involved in distributing assistance through cash, directly to the most vulnerable of the displaced, which we felt had a lot of impact previously. If we had more funding, then we would be able to extend that program. Also, I think that investing into sustainable development of civil society is one of the key aspects. At some stage, as the conflict terminates, and when it does international funding will dry up. And these organizations have a really important role to play in Ukrainian society whether or not there is conflict, in terms of providing a social safety net for people who would otherwise fall through.

One problem with charity and benefits is that these do not create the source of sustainable economic development. With the beginning of the Maidan, then the conflict, the readiness to donate and available funds for that amongst common people and businesses were far higher than they are now. What are ways to develop sustainable safety net for displaced people? Especially in a strained economy that Ukraine is?

Humanitarian assistance does tend to come in the forms of handouts distributed for free. Over time, that has a negative effect because it develops dependency. We’ve seen that in every operation I’ve been in, particularly where refugee operations are concerned. In protracted situations refugees become dependent on international assistance. That’s very difficult to exit and needs some strategic thinking on the part of the UN and the government together and now.

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But I would say that civil society and national NGOs could first of all continue to provide great support for the government. It’s very cost effective to provide social support through these NGOs rather than directly through the government. If I think of Britain, the government there does fund some charity. They recognize that they don’t want to engage in providing some of these services directly, or that the NGO can be much better positioned to providing these services. Besides, everything from drug addiction to family support doesn’t have to be done by the government, yet the government does have a role in funding them. In Britain these sectors have been developed since Victorian times when recognition of poverty took place, and the government understood that civil society has an important role to play.

Another thing NGOs can achieve in terms of sustainable funding is through reaching out to Ukraine’s diaspora. Diasporas in most countries are very interested in what’s going on in their home country. And they are generally better-off compared to people in their home countries. So, links between these NGOs and diaspora could be very beneficial.


Geoff Wordley was educated at Sudbury Grammar School, Suffolk, Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, and the French Naval Staff College, Ecole Militaire, Paris. He joined the Royal Navy at Britannia Royal Naval College, Dartmouth in September 1972 and from 1975 spent the next eighteen years serving in a variety of ships, submarines and shore establishments.  He specialized in logistics and administration. In 1994, Mr. Wordley was recruited by the UN Department of Peacekeeping in Rwanda (UNAMIR). After that he joined the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Ngozi, Burundi, during the refugee crisis caused by the Rwandan civil war. His appointments in UNHCR included further service in Kenya, Croatia in the aftermath of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, Guinea, Kosovo, Macedonia, Geneva, Chad, Pakistan, South Sudan, West Africa, Ethiopia, Sudan, Iraq.

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