Red Cross volunteers and specialised staff have rapidly scaled up the humanitarian response in Ukraine on a level never seen in Europe, political editor Jo Moir reports

More than 100,000 local Red Cross volunteers and upward of 800 specialised staff have been deployed to the Ukraine conflict and neighbouring countries since the invasion began in February.

Both the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and a number of national-level Red Cross organisations are working in and around Ukraine, including the country’s own volunteer base, which has been supported on the ground by specialist staff from the ICRC for more than eight years.

But despite the presence of Red Cross in international conflicts throughout history, there continues to be a “mistaken perception” around its neutrality and purpose, including in Ukraine.

Anita Dullard is the Asia Pacific regional spokesperson for the ICRC, based in Bangkok. She sat down with Newsroom in Wellington on Thursday where she described the scale of the the organisation’s response to the Ukraine conflict as “unprecedented”.

“Working at that scale in that region is something we’ve never done before.”

“Europe, obviously, has seen migration and refugees coming through over the years, particularly coming out of Syria and Afghanistan. But this is such a huge movement of people in a short space of time, so teams are having to react really quickly.”

Ukraine is a “unique and interesting example” for the Red Cross, because its response touches on almost every area of work.

“It’s not just one country affected, it’s many countries that are bordering there,’’ Dullard said.

“We’re often having to deal with the mistaken perception that we’re a religious organisation, for instance. The cross is probably the primary cause of the misconception.”
– Anita Dullard

While volunteers from national Red Cross teams are on the ground dealing with immediate medical assistance and the humanitarian crisis, the ICRC has spent nearly a decade focused on resilience training across a raft of areas.

ICRC specialists in the region include water engineers working on sanitation and forensic specialists helping with establishing the fate of people who are missing.

Dullard told Newsroom there was also a specialised group of people called “protection delegates”.

“These are people who are specialised in things like prisoner of war visits, so they’re trained, they go in, they negotiate with authorities and then they also have access and speak with detainees.”

There is also a lot of “neutral intermediary work” carried out facilitating frontline exchanges of soldiers who have been wounded, to reunite them with their families.

“That’s quite a specialised skillset and I think probably doesn’t exist as its own profession,” Dullard said.

“A lot of people who work for ICRC have been with us for up to two decades and people become really expert in their field and have tended to work across many conflicts.”

One request that has dramatically increased in Ukraine since February is calls for more first aid training for civilians, which is something the national-led Red Cross volunteers are helping with.

At the ICRC level there has been a focus in the past week on children going back to school and ensuring they’re as safe as possible.

That’s seen film put on windows to make them shatter-proof if there’s an explosion nearby and specialist staff have also been working with teachers on psychological first aid for the children and practical steps like evacuation plans.

The laws of war

The fighting in Ukraine must adhere to the Geneva Conventions and additional protocols that apply.

Dullard said it’s a “body of law that all states have signed up to and that in itself is kind of an unusual feat”.

“So everybody’s agreed there must be limits to the suffering and war and this body of law really dictates how warfare should be conducted.

“It doesn’t say wars shouldn’t happen but it says civilians must be protected, and there are other protected groups too,’’ she said.

Part of the job of the ICRC is to establish bilateral dialogue.

“That’s working with states and militaries, non-state armed groups, basically anybody who is kind of party to a conflict, to promote their awareness and understanding and ability to conduct war in adherence to these rules,” Dullard said.

The ICRC works confidentially with the various parties to apply the law but is by no means an arbiter of whether people comply with the rules.

“We do things like, say for prisoners of war, insisting that the ICRC is able to visit them and detainees to make sure they are receiving all of their rights within the Geneva Conventions and advocating bilaterally to do that.”

Dullard says there’s an increasing number of parties, or actors, involved in the various conflicts, which makes communication “incredibly complex”.

“Formal structures of state and formal militaries have a more traditional understanding of the rules of war…whereas newer groups may not have that same structure to learn, so that’s something we have to build over time.”

Establishing trust in relationships, which is often done through the work specialist staff do in the prisoner of war and detention camps, is crucial – as is reminding everyone involved of the Red Cross’s neutrality.

“We’re often having to deal with the mistaken perception that we’re a religious organisation, for instance. The cross is probably the primary cause of the misconception.

“Our neutrality isn’t well understood,” Dullard said.

A lot of time and energy from local volunteers goes into communicating that message to people on the ground.

Next week on Newsroom: How New Zealand is helping with humanitarian aid in Ukraine

Jo Moir is Newsroom's political editor.

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