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6 months after the war in Ukraine started – UNHCR

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Comment from UNHCR’s Representative to the Nordic and Baltic countries
By Henrik M. Nordentoft  |  24.08.2022
Mother and children leaving the war in Ukraine to seek safety in Europe © UNHCR/Zsolt Balla
The article was first published on 23. August 2022 EstiPäevaleht.
This week, it’s six months ago since Russia launched an invasion on Ukraine, leading to intense hostilities and causing massive destruction and severe impact on innocent civilians. In turn, this has triggered one of the biggest and fastest growing refugee crises since World War II. We have all seen the devastating images of particularly women and young children fleeing for their lives, families often separated, homes and belongings left behind, and the overarching uncertainty about what the future will bring.
As sudden and enormous the outflow of refugees out of Ukraine and away from the hostilities – as prompt and overwhelming were the response, the solidarity and the willingness to help them witnessed across Europe, including in Estonia.
We have seen government, local authorities, civil society and many, many ordinary citizens and volunteers working together and welcoming the refugees fleeing Ukraine. People of Estonia have opened their homes and donated generous amounts of relief items, helping in any possible way. National authorities have adapted laws and procedures to better welcome and include those fleeing in social protection systems. NGOs have quickly stepped up and provided extraordinary support, demonstrating the strength and competence of the Estonian civil society.
Compared to its size and population, Estonia has received and is hosting a very high number of refugees from Ukraine – and while this naturally has put pressure on reception capacity and social protection systems, Estonia has continued to keep its borders open for Ukrainian refuges and provided for their accommodation and support. In UNHCR’s view, this extraordinary national commitment is deserving of praise and recognition.
The response in Estonia also serves as a strong example of European solidarity – and this continues to be needed as the situation in Ukraine remains very unpredictable. Depending on developments, more people may be leaving Ukraine in search of safety, and it may also take time before refugees from Ukraine are able to return.
As elsewhere in Europe, the response and generosity towards Ukrainian refugees, must also serve as an important lesson and guide for welcoming and receiving refugees and asylum-seekers in the future.
Although the focus and concerns for the moment, and understandably, are on the situation in Ukraine, we need to remind ourselves, that regrettably the world is facing many other situations where children, women and men are forced from their homes due to war, violence, persecution or gross violations of human rights. Globally, we have now surpassed 100 million people forcibly displaced, with the vast majority internally displaced in their own countries or hosted in the neighboring region, typically by low and middle-income countries. This means that more than one percent of humanity is forcibly displaced – and they all need and deserve the same protection and solidarity. Refugees are refugees, no matter their nationality, religion, ethnicity, gender or their means of desperate journeys and border-crossings.
In recent years, UNHCR has been very worried about tendencies across Europe of introducing restrictions on protection, pushing back individuals across borders, and jeopardizing the right to apply for asylum. While UNHCR has welcomed Estonia’s strong and positive response to Ukrainian refugees, we have also expressed concern about recent legislative measures which would seem to take Estonia in another direction which would seem to run counter to the spirit and principle of international refugee protection, carefully put in place after the horrors and experiences of World War II.
The right to international protection and the respect for human rights are core principles and values, defined by international and European law. It’s for Europe to lead the way – and lead by example. In the last six months, we have seen it vividly in practice and in reality – humanity and the rule of law going hand in hand.
Thank you, to the government and the people of Estonia, for your commendable reception and protection to refugees from Ukraine. In UNHCR, we count on Estonia to continue to play its part and continue to give people fleeing conflict and persecution a safe refuge and the vital helping hand which will allow them to recover and rebuild their lives.

© UNHCR 2001-2022