Ukrinform sat down with the EU official responsible for the Union’s humanitarian assistance to the war-torn Ukraine, Andreas Papaconstantinou, who is the Director for Neighborhood the Directorate General for European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (DG ECHO) at the European Commission. Mr Papaconstantinou arrived last week on his latest mission to Ukraine to assess the urgent humanitarian needs of the affected population, see first-hand the damage and destruction caused by Russian strike, speak with national and local authorities, his field mission staff and partners on the ground, to make sure the assistance is swiftly delivered to all communities requiring such aid. The official commented on a number of important topics, including mental health and psychological assistance, humanitarian demining, energy resilience, sustainable grain exports, and more.
MENTAL HEALTH IS CRUCIAL FOR UKRAINE’S RESILIENCE AND CAPACITY TO MOVE FORWARD
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivered an update on the number of people in Ukraine in need of humanitarian assistance. It's astonishing 18 million. So those figures are just stunning and we all understand the tremendous job that your directorate general is doing to address the problem. Now the angle of humanitarian support that I wanted to touch upon is mental health. It was the main topic of the Summit of First Ladies and Gentlemen recently held in Kyiv. Are there any psychological assistance programs for affected Ukrainians that have already been launched with the assistance of your Directorate-General?
Mental health, psychosocial support and protection are very crucial sectors for the country's resilience and its capacity to move forward. For 2023, EU humanitarian assistance is focused on scaling up integrated primary health care and protection services in remote areas and as close as possible to the contact line,
In 2023 alone, my department, which is the humanitarian arm of the European Union, has provided EUR 37.7 million for health and protection, which is a very substantial part of our humanitarian program for Ukraine. This includes psychosocial and mental health support.
I was in the field, visiting communities in three oblasts, Mykolaiv, Zaporizhzhia and Dnipro, before coming to Kyiv for my meetings with government authorities. There are a lot of projects that we are funding in the field in this very important domain. To give you just a few examples, we are funding a hub run by the Ukrainian Red Cross and the Danish Red Cross in Mykolaiv, which is about reaching those in remote communities who are in urgent need of mental health and psychosocial support and protection. In Zaporizhzhia, Caritas is running three centers providing psychosocial support programs for people who are displaced and living in host communities, including child friendly spaces. With UNICEF, we provide assistance to victims, including children and teenagers in heavily explosive-ordinance-contaminated areas. So this is a priority area for us, in which we will further our work.
EU PROVIDING DEMINING TECHNOLOGY TO HELP UKRAINE MINIMIZE CASUALTIES AMONG SAPPERS
Speaking about mine-contaminated areas, let’s turn to the humanitarian demining issue. How is the work progressing in this field? What are the biggest challenges at the moment facing the actors involved in the effort?
Demining is a prerequisite, for peace and prosperity in Ukraine. However, we are fully aware that this is an immense challenge. Since the beginning of the war, at least 500 mine-related civilian accidents have occurred with over 240 civilian deaths and over 550 injuries. Even very recently, a man has died in Kyiv region after his car hit an explosive device. So, it's real. And it is estimated that 174,000 square kilometers, which is roughly 30 per cent of the entire territory of Ukraine, is contaminated. It's huge. That’s not to mention that according to some other estimates, this could go up to 40 percent of the territory. This means that we are faced with a very serious challenge here and the decontamination of such vast areas will require a massive effort in terms of time, money, and resources.
The European Union provides demining support through the donation of equipment or funding for mine clearance, surveys and risk education, as well as support through expert advice on how to strengthen mine action governance. We work in very close cooperation with the State Emergency Service of Ukraine and specialized international partners. And the European Union is also represented on the advisory board of the newly created Centre for Humanitarian Mine Action of Ukraine.
We want to play an important role in this respect. And from various instruments across the board in the European Union, we have mobilized so far more than EUR 60 million, and we intend to continue supporting demining activities. I had very good meetings with the State Emergency Service officials, both here in Kyiv and in Mykolaiv. We discussed the challenges and ways to further improve the assistance, including the provision of equipment and technical capacity enhancement. And I would like to underline that I was impressed by their level of preparation, commitment, and bravery.
Maybe you can give us some details about the technology, any breakthrough technology being applied here in Ukraine to demine areas, perhaps certain types of unmanned platforms to make sure that sappers are safe?
Absolutely. So far, through the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism, the EU Member States have been able to provide different types of protective equipment and metal detectors. We are we are working closely with SESU, in the context of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, to ensure that this hardware and new technology is provided with the aim of avoiding human casualties. So we're definitely committed to that as well.
Now there’s a major issue of Ukrainian children being systematically abducted and deported from the occupied areas to Russia and Belarus. Unfortunately, there has not been any clear international mechanism of returning those children to Ukraine. Is there any progress in developing such a mechanism and what measures are being taken to facilitate the process of making sure these children make it back home?
Child protection is a priority for the European Union’s humanitarian action. The forced evacuation of war-affected civilians and especially children is totally unacceptable. And, the European Union is deeply concerned about the safety and well-being of children, who have been forced to flee their homes and have been put into situations that exacerbate their vulnerability. The risks of falling victim to exploitation, abuse, neglect, and trafficking are extremely high and must be prevented. The EU pays special attention to children in institutional care, such as the disabled kids or orphans.
The EU condemns the blatant and widespread violations of international humanitarian law and human rights, especially against children. Children must be treated in line with the United Nations convention on the rights of the child. That's the basic premise of our approach and we call for the protection of children from the atrocities of the war. The European Union will continue to support efforts by the International Committee of the Red Cross and UN. organizations and agencies to verify cases and facilitate family reunification. We also support civil society organizations who are active on this issue.
PRIVATE SECTOR AND THIRD COUNTRIES ARE JOINING EU’S HUMANITARIAN SUPPORT EFFORT
Since early last fall, Russia has been deliberately destroying Ukraine's energy infrastructure. And now our intelligence warns of the likely increase in these attacks this fall and upcoming winter. Does the EU realize the extent of the potential destruction and the scale of the humanitarian aid that Ukraine requires to this end? I believe on September 21 came another strike on an energy facility in Rivne region… What are the EU initiatives to help Ukraine not plunge into darkness and cold this winter?
The European Union strongly condemns the indiscriminate attacks on civilians and civilian infrastructure by Russia, including energy facilities in Ukraine. We urge Russia to immediately cease these systematic missile strikes. In response to the request from Ukrainian authorities the European Union has implemented a comprehensive emergency energy support system that is in place, and we have scaled up our efforts following the onset of these attacks, making significant investments to bolster our capacity to assist Ukraine.
Moreover, since the beginning of the war, the EU has delivered a large number of power generators and transformers. More than 4,700 generators have been donated via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism, as well as 2,500 transformers. Eighteen humanitarian organizations, who are our humanitarian partners, have donated more than 5,000 generators.
On top of that, we have a new positive development, which is the possibility to channel donations from the private sector. For example, 169 generators were donated by an Australian philanthropic organization through the EU. And also, there is momentum towards having third states channeling assistance through the EU, which is also very welcome. Needless to say, we're preparing for the upcoming winter season. This is a priority. The EU is going to provide assistance, as we did last year, to people in need, including the remote and hard-to-reach, or frontline communities, areas affected by the explosion of the Kakhovka HPP dam, and areas that are hosting a large number of internally displaced persons.
The EU, particularly in the area affected by the Kakovkha HPP dam explosion, is already providing rehabilitation and basic refurbishment of houses, apartments and schools, temporary centers/reception centers, distribution of emergency shelter repair kits and cash assistance for heating and energy needs.
EU HAS INVESTED IN EMERGENCY RESPONSE IN CASE OF A NUCLEAR ACCIDENT
After Russia blew up the Kakhovka HPP dam, many here in Ukraine felt there are actually no red lines for Russia that it can’t potentially cross. Russia may go as far as provoke some kind of nuclear accident at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant they have captured in March 2022. Does the EU have any contingency plan of humanitarian assistance in case Russia will deliberately cause a nuclear accident at the ZNPP, God forbid?
The possibility of an intentionally provoked nuclear disaster is deeply concerning. Should the Ukrainian government request the EU support in such an event, the European Union stands ready to assist through established mechanisms, such as the EU civil protection mechanism, and we have already made serious investments in our preparedness for emergencies in the field of CBRN – chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear. And by the way, I have discussed this during my mission now in Zaporizhzhia with the administration there and with a number of international and local partners.
So we have been already supporting Ukraine through the EUCPM, facilitating the delivery of countermeasures such as potassium iodine tablets, masks, and ventilators, both in the critical medical and CBRN equipment areas. Overall, these countermeasures that I have mentioned are worth EUR 56 million, and on top of that, we also aim to increase the level of preparedness of our humanitarian partners in the field.
HUMANITARIAN ACCESS VIRTUALLY IMPOSSIBLE IN RUSSIA-OCCUPIED AREAS
Last year, in an interview with our agency, you complained about problems with humanitarian access, especially in the eastern and southern parts of Ukraine, and stated that the EU fully supports the creation of a safe passage/humanitarian corridors for the delivery of aid and the evacuation of the civilian population. Are there any developments in this regard? Are you contact with the Russian side to facilitate access?
Access is absolutely essential for the delivery of humanitarian assistance. In the newly liberated areas despite the challenges, our partners are able to reach people in need. The local partners play an essential role as frontline responders in providing assistance. They are often the ones reaching “the last mile”, which is very important. And with regard to the assistance in Russian-occupied territories, I would like to be very clear about the fact that we are not talking to the Russians to facilitate access Humanitarian access is virtually impossible in those areas, unfortunately. The European Union fully supports the efforts of the UN to reach people in those occupied territories, as soon as Russia provides adequate security, which is not the case so far. Without safe access, humanitarian organizations cannot deliver assistance to the affected areas and help the people there. So, the EU continues to call on Russia to ensure unimpeded access for humanitarian actors to provide assistance in the areas under its control.
EU MEMBER STATES DECIDE THEMSELVES ON THE MODALITIES OF ASSISTANCE TO DISPLACED UKRAINIANS
Are there currently any pressing problems with social assistance to Ukrainian citizens, mainly women, children, and the elderly who were forced to flee the war, in any EU member states? Are the governments satisfied with the EU's compensation policy? Some comments have been coming from Poland that they might consider downgrading social assistance to resettled Ukrainians…
Let me start by saying that since the outset of the Russian invasion in February 2022, the European Union as a whole has shown an unprecedented level of solidarity with Ukraine, stepping up its assistance and support in the humanitarian, political, and military domains. Just to give you a figure, the overall assistance of the European Union to Ukraine across the board has reached EUR 77 billion.
And I’d like to underline that when the humanitarian crisis began to unfold, many EU member states demonstrated a very strong will to welcome millions of Ukrainians in Europe, who were fleeing the invasion. There is also a very important development that took place, which is the activation of the Temporary Protection Directive.
But this Directive does not include a minimum threshold of financial contribution to the beneficiaries, nor the way this assistance will be provided. As a consequence, this means that the EU member states have an obligation to provide assistance, but they decide themselves on the modalities of this assistance. EU member states can access EU funding for temporary protection measures under several programs in the cohesion policy or home affairs areas. And these funding possibilities range from the first reception of displaced persons to integration measures.
Of course, we also have to address the grain issue. Russia has been purposefully destroying the grain and port infrastructure of Ukraine, weaponizing food and increasing the threat of famine in the world's most vulnerable countries that require Ukrainian grain so badly. Is the EU taking measures to help Ukraine rebuild its damaged agricultural and transport infrastructure?
The continued export of Ukrainian grain is essential for the people who are in need in vulnerable countries across the globe. This is a global food security issue. But it is also very important to sustain Ukraine's economy. This week, in the margins of the United Nations General Assembly, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen informed President Volodymyr Zelensky during their meeting that the European Union is expanding the Solidarity Lanes to bring Ukraine's grain to the world, despite Russia's blockade of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. We are working relentlessly to increase the capacity of our Solidarity Lanes, which is a priority for us.
Now, on the damaged ports infrastructure. I would like to add that there is a visit scheduled by European Commission officials, for assessing damage and identifying funding possibilities for repairs, which is very important.
THERE IS HOPE FOR A BETTER FUTURE IN THE EYES OF UKRAINIANS
You traveled around Ukraine before arriving in Kyiv. What are your impressions? What struck you the most in the southern and eastern parts of the country?
I visited a number of regions very close to the line of contact. I've been impressed by the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people in cities and villages as well as the authorities who operate under very difficult circumstances there. Despite the constant air raid alerts and indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets, life continues., And our EU humanitarian partners are working together with local partners and the authorities on the ground to support people in need and to ensure dignity.
I met with beneficiaries and regional and local authorities, to discuss the current humanitarian assistance and the challenges ahead. The emergency response to the Kakhovka dam breach was rapid thanks to the presence of our partners in the field and the good coordination with the authorities. Now, the main challenge is to prepare for the winter and prevent any disruption of basic services, especially in rural and frontline communities.
I saw a lot of suffering and destruction. But again, wherever I went, I also saw hope. Hope for a better future, for better days to come. And despite the immense challenges and needs, we are responding and we will not stop offering our assistance. Ukrainian citizens must know that the European Union stands by them for as long as it takes.
Photo by Ievgen Kotenko