October 19, 2022

By Abby Garmon, UNA-NCA Program Assistant

On Tuesday, October 11th, UNA-NCA welcomed panelists Oksana Horbunova and Gayatri Patel to discuss the humanitarian impacts of the War in Ukraine, specifically the impact on refugees and migrants. Paula Boland, President of UNA-NCA, began the discussion with a brief welcome to the panelists and audience members. She then introduced the event’s moderator, human rights attorney, Amanda Molina. In Ms. Molina’s brief description of the two panelists, she highlighted the achievements and contributions each has made to the humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. In the discussion that followed, Oksana Horbunova, a Ukrainian anti-trafficking activist, and Gayatri Patel, Vice President of Advocacy and External Relations at the Women’s Refugee Commission and Vice Chair of Advocacy at UNA-NCA, each provided important insight into the Ukrainian War, discussing themes of international cooperation, gender, and economics.

The conversation began with a question for each Oksana and Gayatri, allowing the audience to gain an understanding of each woman’s individual expertise and contribution to the humanitarian response. In her first question, the moderator asked Ms. Horbunova to describe the current situation in Ukraine, where she joined us from for the program. She explained that a recent round of bombings had destroyed buildings and forced citizens to take cover in metro stations that had been converted into bomb shelters. She underscored the danger and unpredictability of the situation, which has caused millions of people to flee their homes.

The discussion then shifted to the involvement of the Women’s Refugee Commission (WRC), which seeks to fight gender-based violence and abuse in conflict zones through advocacy and research efforts. In addition, Ms. Patel stressed WRC’s mission to aid vulnerable populations, who are often disproportionately affected during times of crisis. These groups include women and children, the elderly, LGBTQ people, and those with disabilities. Specifically, advocacy efforts include access to reproductive health services and other medical needs.

In her first joint question, Ms. Molina asked the panelists to describe the international community’s response to the Ukrainian refugees fleeing the crisis. Oksana explained that from the onset of the war, UN agencies have attempted to establish special units where refugees can find help. Many Ukrainians have fled to Western Europe, though they have struggled with lack of appropriate documentation and language barriers. However, neighboring countries have been helpful in providing basic needs for migrants when crossing the border. For those who have been unable to leave Ukraine, Ms. Horbunova stressed the importance of local NGOs. The UN has partnered with these organizations, who have added humanitarian issues to their agendas and organized shelters for people in their areas. Ms. Patel further underscored the vital role of regional organizations, explaining, “It was inspiring to see these organizations making sure that human rights were served.”

Next, the panelists were asked to discuss the economic impacts of the war, both in Ukraine and abroad. Within the country, Oksana explained, many experts and professionals have fled to other parts of Europe, where they have been able to secure new positions and integrate into new communities. While she stressed that many of these experts are eager to return to Ukraine, due to the uncertainty of the war, they are unable to predict when this will be possible. Gayatri expanded on these difficulties, explaining the long-term impacts the country faces. With loss of livelihood and access to education, Ukrainian children are particularly vulnerable. In addition, the global economy has suffered, with rising oil and gas prices worldwide, as well as food shortages affecting Eastern Europe and parts of Africa.

In the following questions, the speakers addressed both the physical and psychological trauma resulting from the war. Gender-based violence, particularly, has remained a concern throughout the conflict. Oksana stressed the importance of holding guilty parties accountable by establishing a special investigation unit to work with prosecutors and police forces. In addition, she explained that human rights organizations play a key role in recognizing and condemning these crimes. In her response, Gayatri emphasized the importance of preventative measures within shelters and other areas with high rates of gender-based violence. However, she explained, psychological trauma is also a concern. Both mothers and children are particularly vulnerable, with high levels of family separation due to the war.

Finally, both panelists sought to remind audience members of the importance of continued awareness of the humanitarian crisis. Historically, while economic concerns are wide-reaching and likely to remain in the news for the foreseeable future, humanitarian issues are more easily forgotten by those who are not directly impacted. To combat this problem, Oksana and Gayatri stressed the importance of continued support. Their suggestions included holding rallies, featuring Ukrainian voices in the media, and promoting local organizations and activists. Such actions can make a difference, and, as Oksana explained, “For Ukraine, it is very important to feel this international solidarity.” Through these measures, the international community can continue to assist Ukraine and protect against the desensitization of these important humanitarian concerns.

In closing remarks, Young Professionals Co-Chair, Nadjad Nikabou, thanked the speakers for their time and provided a reminder of UNA-NCA's upcoming Careers in Climate Policy event on November 17th.

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