13th Apr 2024


An EU response to the biggest humanitarian disaster since WWII

  • Ursula von der Leyen just announced an additional €500m - but the needs are unprecedented and will get bigger (Photo: European Parliament)
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Overnight and unprovoked, Russia's invasion of Ukraine has created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises — and by far the biggest humanitarian disaster — Europe has seen since the end of World War II.

People who until last week had been busy working, studying, looking after their children are now fleeing for their lives, hiding from the missiles and bombs, or are among the rising number of those killed in what must count among the most blatant and overt violations of international law since 1939.

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  • EU Commissioner Janez Lenarčič: 'The UN launched an appeal for €1.56bn to assist six million people inside Ukraine and up to four million refugees - this only covers the next three months'

The overriding imperative now is to stop the guns, missiles and rockets laying waste to an entire country.

The power to do so lies with one man alone.

Millions of people across the continent are feeling both outraged and powerless at what they see. But already, there are things we can do to lessen the suffering of people caught in Ukraine and the more than one million and a half Ukrainians who have fled across the border to Poland, Moldova, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and beyond.

First, humanitarian organisations are continuing to work inside Ukraine, albeit struggling with significant obstacles in accessing those in need and at constant risk to their own lives.

As food shortages and attacks on basic infrastructure have already started to make living conditions for the people of Ukraine ever more atrocious, humanitarian workers and the population itself are doing their utmost to provide food, safe water and shelter.

The European Union is helping: through our Union Civil Protection Mechanism, we are facilitating the delivery of vital health, hygiene, medical and shelter material from our member states directly to Ukraine.

Several lorries have already arrived in Kyiv and other towns in Ukraine. We are also providing €90m in funding to our humanitarian partners — the United Nations, the Red Cross and NGOs — working on the ground in Ukraine and Moldova.

And EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has just announced an additional €500m to deal with the humanitarian consequences of the war in Ukraine and in neighbouring countries.

But the needs are unprecedented and will get bigger. On 1 March, the United Nations launched an appeal for $1.7bn [€1.56bn] to assist six million people inside Ukraine and up to four million refugees with basic assistance.

This only covers the next three months, and with each day of the aggression we see, the needs will increase further as the impact of Russia's targeting of population centres and civilian infrastructure expands. Governments urgently need to step up their funding, and we hope the tremendous generosity we have seen from private citizens donating to the humanitarian response so far will continue.


Second, we need to help the countries receiving Ukrainian refugees. This notably includes Moldova, the country with very limited capacity to cope with the massive influx.

It needs assistance in every possible way to provide protection for people arriving at its borders. The frontline countries have shown remarkable solidarity in welcoming refugees, as one can see on the border between the EU and Ukraine.

As the European Union, we are supporting their efforts. Through the Civil Protection Mechanism, eight of our member states are providing hands-on assistance to Moldova with tents, sleeping bags, ambulances, generators and more.

Several member states are also supporting Poland and Slovakia with equipment to help support their generous reception of refugees.

The EU has also taken a historic decision by activating measures providing temporary protection to refugees, giving them instant rights to work and live in the EU. This is what Europe is about in practice in a crisis. Solidarity, helping each other, and pooling our resources. Because we are all concerned.

Finally, we need to be unrelenting in pushing for the protection of civilians and humanitarian access.

International humanitarian law sets out the fundamental rules that no belligerent, no army must violate in a war.

All states, without exception, have ratified the Geneva Conventions. They are legally binding, not just aspirational.

And under their common Article 1, all states have an obligation to ensure their respect, and by others.

We must use every opportunity, every avenue, direct or indirect, every possible lever we have to get some clear messages across. Do not target civilians. Do not destroy the infrastructure on which they rely. Allow humanitarian and health workers to move freely and safely.

We know where the responsibility for stopping the bloodshed lies.

But there are practical things we can do to help the people of Ukraine and the time to act is now. For the millions of innocent people suffering but also to defend the cornerstones of the international order that we painstakingly built after World War II. To preserve humanity.

Author bio

Janez Lenarčič is the EU commissioner for crisis management. Tomas Tobé MEP is the chair of the European Parliament development committee.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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