“For 33 years I have been asking myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ And for 33 years, the world has never been in such bad shape as it is now …In terms of resources, we are competing with emergencies in Iraq, in Syria,” Wetterwald said. “But I have never been so happy to work with these people, although there is a great sense of responsibility,” he said.

Ukraine’s situation is atypical in every sense of the word, with the war not officially recognized and, for Ukraine, a struggling economy and a government trying to make big changes.

“There are so many challenges: economic, political, humanitarian. This is why Ukraine can benefit from the assistance and the help of the UN. And I hope that we will be able to bring that assistance…We have to make sure that such assistance reinforces the capacity of the state to respond. This is one thing we should not substitute, but reinforce,” he said.


Ukraine’s more than 2 million displaced, including those who have fled to Russia, are mostly under the radar of the rest of the world. Their plight does not match the traditional perception of refugees.

“There is a crisis, but to the outside world it’s not very visible. Why? Because many of these internally displaced people have been received by host communities, because the local association and civil society have done a fantastic job in receiving them. So, we say 1.3 million IDPs, people say, “Where? Where are they? Show us this crisis,’” Wetterwald said. “I don’t like this term – IDPs because it tends to make people visualize refugee camps, and here that is not the case.”

Another reason is their geographic distribution: more than 75 percent of IDPs resettled in the five eastern oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Kharkiv, Zaporizhya and Dnipropetrovsk.

Wetterwald worked in Colombia, where the government registered 6 million internally displaced persons.

“I thought that maybe I could bring my skills. I have a vision of what we need to do for IDPs and part of the problem is that too often, we apply ‘recipes’ which do not work. I don’t have to apply the Colombian recipe in Ukraine, but there are some ingredients that will be helpful,” he said.


One of the biggest problems facing displaced Ukrainians is discrimination in their new communities.

“When you are in a job market that is already in crisis and you have new arrivals, then you exacerbate such problems. And this is why it’s so important for the international community to understand Ukraine’s pressing humanitarian needs in the occupied territories and the bordering areas, and that the rest of the country has absorbed many IDPs from these areas. We have to think about longer term programs that do not fall into the humanitarian category, but focus on how you can assist the communities taking in these refugees,” he said. “I have visited villages recently where you have one local person for every four IDPs. Can you imagine what that means for the community? In terms of schooling?”

Wetterwald said he sees his mission as one of the most challenging assignments in his career. It is important for the UN agency to simply be present and show people in the war-torn east that they have not been forgotten, as well as offer humanitarian goods and shelter materials, he said.


“I am always moved when I meet these people. You feel such a huge responsibility on your shoulders, because the mere fact of meeting with someone from the international community – we are raising expectations by doing this. But this is really the motivating factor, to meet with these people and realize something must be done for them,” he said.

The refugee agency has offices in Kharkiv, Dnipropetrovsk, Severodonetsk, Mariupol and a presence in Donetsk.

The team expanded to meet the crisis, climbing to about 110 staff members across the nation, compared to 25 before. It also includes several displaced Ukrainians who want to help, Wetterwald said.

Much of the team’s work relies on “bridging gaps,” he said – providing people information they need to decide where to live.

Describing a recent visit with refugees in Severodonetsk, Wetterwald said he met with a group of women who wished to access microcredit grants.

“They were just lacking the necessary information, since such programs do exist. So in situations like this, we are there to bridge the information gap,” he said.

The work is apolitical because there are “victims on both sides” of the war.

A map showing the latest statistics for Ukraine’s more than 1.3 million
internally displaced people. About 75 percent of them are located in the
five eastern oblasts of Luhansk, Donetsk, Zaporizhya, Dnipropetrovsk
and Kharkiv.


“The international community is here to make sure that people have a choice. If people want to leave, we need to ensure that they can, that there is somewhere for them to go,” he said.

He commented on the UN and the Ukrainian government’s work, saying both could do better and that it was “a work in progress.”

One of the UNHCR’s concerns is the potential for a full blockade of occupied territories by Ukraine. The UN has “voiced its concerns,” he said. “Freedom of movement is a basic freedom. Elderly people who are under shelling – we should give them the chance to leave if they want to leave. So from a humanitarian angle, the blockade is a very problematic measure. It might result in a greater wave of IDPs. Are we ready to receive them? I don’t know. We are working on contingency plans, but this might be an unintended consequence,” he said.

The needs are great and growing.

“We humanitarians have to ask ourselves why we are doing this work while the conflict is continuing. In the Ukrainian context, we have to make sure that as a fleeting dream, reconciliation is not forgotten … We keep this hope alive. It’s a candle with a very fragile flame, and I just hope the flame will not go out,” he said.

Jean-Noel Wetterwald (unhcr.or.th)

Kyiv Post staff writer Allison Quinn can be reached at [email protected]

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