Laura Kyrke Smith is UK Executive Director of the International Rescue Committee.
As we reflect on the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine, the gravity of what we have witnessed in the last year cannot be overstated.
A year on, the conflict has triggered an unparalleled displacement crisis, and fuelled unprecedented humanitarian needs within the country.
We must not mark this moment with simply a pause for reflection, it must serve as a hinge point for global action; both for stepping-up and solidifying support for Ukrainians, and for extending the same compassion to all those fleeing crises.
Inside Ukraine, the year has brought into sharp relief the challenges faced by those who each day reckon with the painful reality of life in a warzone. With renewed waves of violence and escalating Russian missile attacks amidst harsh, freezing winter conditions, over 18 million people are currently in need of humanitarian assistance.
The war has been defined by regular violations of international humanitarian law. Attacks on civilian homes, schools and hospitals have become commonplace, and, with 50 per cent of Ukraine’s power grid damaged by missile strikes, vast swathes of the population have been left with no or intermittent access to electricity, heating or running water.
The International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) own efforts to help have been hindered by shelling, and frequent disruptions in the delivery of life-saving aid are a testimony to the costs ordinary people continue to pay.
The conflict has left an indelible mark on the lives of all Ukrainians, but the reach of this war extends beyond Ukraine’s borders.
From spiralling energy prices across Europe to extreme hunger in East Africa, the interconnectedness – and interdependence – of our world has never been more obvious, or more dangerous.
Seven of the countries identified in the IRC’s Watchlist 2023 report – which ranks countries most likely to suffer humanitarian deterioration in the coming year – imported an average of 66 per cent of their wheat from Russia and Ukraine. This rises to 90 percent for Somalia, which today is facing famine as a result of climate change, economic shocks, and the far-reaching impacts of the war.
For both people in Ukraine and those feeling the reverberations in East Africa, marking a year of conflict must be accompanied by political momentum from the international community to strengthen the guardrails that are meant to limit the impact of these crises on civilians and prevent them from spiralling out of control.
Humanitarian aid has historically been an area of strength for Britain, and its support of Ukraine is to be commended. But damaging cuts to the UK’s aid and diplomacy budgets leave the government needing to do far more to help people in crisis in places like East Africa.
The British public want the UK to step up to tackle these interconnected crises and the shockwaves they send. This means better protecting civilians in conflict, reinvigorating global mechanisms to prevent famine, and ring-fencing at least half of its aid budget for fragile and conflict-affected countries, where humanitarian needs are greatest.
The outbreak of conflict has also sparked the world’s largest and fastest displacement crisis in decades. In the first six months alone, a staggering one third of Ukraine’s population were forced from their homes, including eight million who have fled Ukraine.
As a drafter and signatory to the Refugee Convention, the UK has a strong tradition of offering refuge to those fleeing persecution and conflict. In the past year 160,000 people from Ukraine have arrived in the UK, and thousands of members of public opened their doors through the Homes for Ukraine scheme to those forced to leave.
Without hesitation, they also opened their purses, giving generously to the DEC Ukraine Emergency Appeal which has now raised over £400 million; to support organisations like IRC which run life-saving humanitarian programmes inside Ukraine and its neighbours.
But the Government must now solidify its commitment to the Ukrainian people by providing greater long-term protection and extending leave to remain, a necessary acknowledgment that many people will be unable to return home.
Integration support for all new arrivals to the UK, including Ukrainians, is also critical, and the Government should respond accordingly by developing a National Integration Strategy. From English language learning to employment support, when refugees don’t have the information and tools needed to navigate their new country, it hinders their ability to rebuild their lives and means UK society cannot benefit from the diverse strengths and contributions of new arrivals.
This appears to be recognised by the British public, with nearly two-thirds in favour of greater support for refugees: new YouGov polling – carried out for IRC in January – shows 61 per cent of the public are in favour of the Government increasing employment support for refugees and 64 per cent back more English language support.
With over 100 million people now displaced around the world, and with UK resettlement figures now lagging behind other G7 economies such as Germany, France, and Canada, this is a critical moment for the Government to step-up it’s support for all those who have been forced to flee their homes.
The IRC recommends that ministers commit to resettling Britain’s fair share of refugees by providing resettlement places for an additional 10,000 refugees a year under the UK Resettlement Scheme. This equates to just an extra 15 people per parliamentary constituency; a pragmatic and attainable commitment that provides an invaluable lifeline for refugees facing extreme vulnerabilities.
2023 presents an opportunity for action for refugees and those struggling to survive through conflict, climate catastrophe and hunger. Each crisis presents an opportunity for learning and strengthening our support mechanisms.
The welcoming response to many Ukrainians fleeing to Europe, the generosity of humanitarian funding, and the mobilisation of international assistance within Ukraine seen in the last year should be the norm, not the exception. Today is a reminder that the world’s most vulnerable people simply cannot wait.