The world is horrified and sickened at the atrocities unfolding in the Ukraine. Every day the tragedy of stories and media visuals confront us, as millions of Ukrainians, mostly women and children leave their homeland and trudge through bitter ice and snow to seek refuge in foreign countries. Pushing prams, clinging to bags of meagre possessions they walk and often perish for want of food, water and warm clothing or simply of exhaustion. In besieged Ukrainian cities death is everywhere. Bodies lie unburied on the streets. Women give birth in bomb shelters and bunkers. Food and essential supplies are running short; millions face hunger, crammed in city basements. Drinking water is often sourced from drains.
Ukrainian men, 18-60 are left behind to pick up arms to defend their country. Many women also remain in their homeland, committed to taking up arms. The society of skilled workforce has been shattered. National defiance and pride are writ large in this war-torn, vulnerable country. Their President, Volodymyr Zelenskyy is a role model of courage, determination and inspiration in a situation of siege warfare, brutality and genocide.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has seen more than three million refugees fleeing the country. And still they flee. Millions more are displaced within their own country whose homes and city buildings have been destroyed. The UNHCR estimates that 12 million will need assistance inside Ukraine. The United Nations reports 1.5 million children have become refugees since Vladimir Putin’s onslaught began on 24 February. Cars carrying children are spread with labels identifying their passengers as children so as to hopefully remain safe. All too often unaccompanied children, separated from family and friends are in danger of neglect and misadventure.
The speed and scale of exodus from Russia’s invasion, indeed the fastest growing refugee crisis in the world outstrips any movement of people since WW2 according to the UNHCR, which is working with humanitarian partners to provide urgent protection and aid both within Ukraine and in neighboring countries such as Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Poland and further afield in Europe. All are struggling to house people under their roofs or in reception centres. As numbers grow daily, fleeing people pour into the arms of compassionate strangers who offer hospitality to the exhausted, frightened and shattered refugees. It is a desperate and fearful beauty of outpouring and compassion. In the security of shelter and safety, basic provisions are provided. Unbounded generosity. One can only imagine the pathos, the tears of relief, the human interaction between host and those fleeing for their lives from the cruelty that has beset them.
The EU has agreed to give Ukrainians automatic safe haven protection and are waiving visas to women so they may work for up to three years in any member state. Mothers become seamstresses, nurses’ aides, technical workers, machine operators, manual laborers – seeking any work that can be found
As the wartime exodus grows, companies are rushing forward with offers of employment, education and necessary English classes, as language barriers are daunting. The challenges are enormous. Onsite kindergartens and day care centers are popping up and schools are welcoming new students. Given toys to play with and learning to embrace, children’s resilience is strong and some are blissfully unaware of the tragedy they have encountered. But others are not so fortunate.
As thousands cross borders on foot, by train or bus, priority is given to the most vulnerable, since border checkpoints are saturated with mile-long lines and basic services are buckling. Concerns grow over the dangers of human trafficking and other forms of exploitation.
The crisis has unleashed a network of online mental health experts and a grass-roots movement of psychologists is responding to psychosocial need by offering trauma counselling and support. Guilt and grief at leaving family is writ large and special care is sought especially for the children who have witnessed what no child should ever see. Children are encouraged to tell stories and create pictures of their trauma.
In Australia, fleeing Ukrainians will be offered temporary humanitarian visas, valid for three years, that will allow them to work, study and access Medicare. Since the Russian invasion began, more than 600 people have arrived and 4500 visas have been issued to people who have family in Australia.
The Refugee Council of Australia is calling for more places for displaced people seeking refuge whether they be from Ukraine, Afghanistan, Myanmar, Africa or the Middle East. In 2021 our humanitarian program was the smallest in 45 years, all the while serious conflicts are escalating. The Australian Government must show more leadership. By the end of 2022 it is feared that one million Afghani children will die of acute starvation and 97% of the country will fall below the poverty line. The Refugee Council is asking for more places for Afghani refugees. Help is long overdue for Afghani asylum seekers seeking protection after the fall of Kabul to the Taliban last year.
Recently 2 refugees from Park Hotel in Melbourne travelled to the US after a long battle with the Australian Government. 10 refugees in Melbourne have been recently released on temporary and community detention visas. The Government gives a pitiful once only hand-out of $150 to survive in their temporary accommodation.
‘Refugee Voices’ whom MUC through ‘Connections’ support, has raised $1,000 for each refugee to settle them safely in the community and to help with basic needs. Protests have been staged in ‘cages’ outside the Park Hotel and in front of the Prime Minister’s residence to end the cruelty being imposed. There are still 27 refugees in detention in Melbourne. 1,100 remain in the community awaiting further decisions. The seemingly indiscriminate release of some men whilst others remain incarcerated is a mystery and an anguishing situation. Joy abounds for those who are freed but others gaze with desperate longing and deep frustration from within hotel rooms, waiting while years of their lives disappear. Some have been detained for 10 years!
The good news is that Australia has finally struck a deal for New Zealand to accept refugees from diverse countries who arrived here by boat – almost a decade since the offer by NZ was first made. Our border protection policies have not changed: illegal maritime arrivals will not settle here permanently. Anyone attempting to breach our borders will be sent back or to Nauru. The three- year agreement now will lead to 450 refugees resettling in NZ. One hundred refugees still on Nauru will have priority after being processed in Australia’s offshore immigration centres. Slow progress indeed compared to what is being done for the Ukrainians.
There is a notable and growing shift in public sentiment in response to the refugee crisis in Australia. The public sympathy for Ukrainian refugees presents a unique opportunity for the Australian government to extricate itself from the harsh and expensive detention policies that have blighted the country for the past two decades. This is a sign of hope.
‘Connections’ is flying a banner for MUC, ‘Free the Refugees’. Our voice is clear. Our intent, decisive. We will continue the fight for justice and freedom on behalf of the vulnerable, incarcerated in our own city. It is time for change. It is time for long overdue compassion. It is time for action by our Australian government.
Gail [for Connections and Social Justice Action Group]