Ukraine's neighboring countries are receiving millions of refugees escaping the bombings. In Russia, they can turn to the Russian Red Cross for help.
As the fire exchange continues in the east and south of Ukraine, civilians continue to flee in search of safety. Out of the 8.4 million people that have left the country, over 1.4 million – many from Russian-controlled Donbas and neighbouring regions – have crossed over to the invader’s territory, according to figures by the UN Refugee Agency.
Since Russian president Vladimir Putin’s sweeping crackdown on independent media and NGOs, reports on the impacts of the war in Russia have become increasingly scarce and harder to verify.
Founded in 1867, with nearly 1,000 local branches across the country, the Russian Red Cross is one of the rare voices that has eyes on the situation of Ukrainian refugees. The state-funded organisation works with the UNHCR and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to provide them with humanitarian assistance.
Its president, Pavel Savchuk, was in Geneva last week for the General Assembly of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). In an interview with Geneva Solutions, the 27-year-old paediatrician explained how it is assisting Ukrainians in Russia and the tricky balance between working with the government and remaining an independent humanitarian organisation.
GS News: What is your position regarding the war in Ukraine?
Pavel Savchuk: At the international federation, and all national societies we call it the Ukrainian crisis. I don't have a position towards the Ukrainian crisis because I'm a humanitarian worker, and we separate the political crisis from the humanitarian crisis. We try to help people who are in need, who are suffering, wherever they are. The Russian Red Cross has a humanitarian mandate in the Russian territory and that is why, from the beginning of this crisis, we’re helping those who cross the Russian border.
What is your role regarding Ukrainian refugees arriving in Russia?
According to the data of the Ministry of Emergency Situations of Russia, more than two million refugees have arrived in the territory of the Russian Federation. All the shelters, or temporary accommodation points, as we call them, are run by the Russian government. The Russian Red Cross acts as one of the main coordinators of humanitarian assistance to support refugees from the Donbas and other parts of Ukraine in the temporary accommodation points and outside of them. Since February, we have delivered 1,600 tonnes of humanitarian aid for these people.
How are you assisting them?
In terms of their needs, we provide support via 100 psychosocial specialists from the Russian Red Cross. They work in the temporary accommodation points and through our unified hotline, where people can call us and explain their concerns. We also work to restore family links, for example, if one part of the family goes to Russia and the other to Poland. We have a special department for reuniting families with the support of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) or through the different national societies.
We also provide cash assistance to people in the border regions. The Russian government provides the first cash assistance when they cross the border – about 10,000 Rubles [CHF188] – and we provide the second cash assistance, which is 5,000 Rubles [CHF93], to vulnerable people, including elderly people, pregnant women, women with children under three years old, and people with disabilities.
The Russian economy seems to be holding up despite the sanctions, but there are concerns that it could face economic difficulties later on. There were reports of medical shortages. What is the current situation and how does it affect your work?
If people need to buy something, they can. Our helping hand is Russia’s healthcare system, because everyone has free access to medical care. All medicines are available in the pharmacies. Maybe certain drugs for rare genetic diseases have been difficult to find, but we haven’t come across those demands. We have a system of pharmacy vouchers and we provide that to the refugees. We haven’t received complaints about medicine that they can't buy. In the beginning of the crisis, the ruble decreased but now it increased again. We also have a long term agreement with big grocery stores and so changes in prices do not affect us.
Are you worried that an economic slowdown in the future could push people out of a job and see an increase in those needing your assistance?
That’s why we’ve implemented cash vouchers and, of course, we help refugees find a job. For example, if they live in temporary accommodation points, they can find open positions on the information desk. Ukrainian refugees don’t need a special work permit, so they can quickly find work. The government also provides access to kindergartens, schools and universities for the children. It's very good because if refugees can leave their children at school, they have time to look for a job.
How are Ukrainians being received by the Russian population given the animosity that could have emerged between the two because of the war?
We have a lot of Ukrainian citizens and people with Ukrainian relatives. We are very close and so is our history, so Ukrainians don't feel a negative attitude towards them. Since the beginning of the crisis, we have received a lot of requests from people who want to help refugees, so we organised a national fundraising campaign, and we raised about CHF3.6 million. For us, it's a big amount of money.
You're mainly funded by and have to work with the government that is the main cause of the suffering that you're meant to alleviate. How does that make you feel?
As a national Red Cross society, we work as an auxiliary of our government in the humanitarian sphere. But it’s a very thin line where our auxiliary role ends and our independence starts and vice versa. Every national society, the IFRC and the ICRC tries to find this balance.