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Panic, Fear, Disbelief: Russia’s Invasion of Ukraine Could Prompt Humanitarian, Refugee Crisis

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We speak about the looming humanitarian crisis in Ukraine with Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, who recently met with civilians on the frontlines in eastern Ukraine and urges world leaders to consider the human cost of war and work toward a ceasefire and diplomatic solution. “A cruel military onslaught is engulfing millions,” says Egeland. “It will lead to untold suffering in Ukraine but also refugee flows in the region.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I am Amy Goodman.

As we continue to look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, we turn now to the humanitarian implications of what could become the largest war in Europe since World War II. We go now to Jan Egeland, the secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, recently in eastern Ukraine, but he’s joining us now from Oslo, Norway.

Jan, welcome back to Democracy Now! Humanitarian groups like yours have warned of a major crisis for millions of people in Ukraine. You’re just back from there. What are your concerns?

JAN EGELAND: Well, what is unfolding now is the ugliest of scenarios. A cruel military onslaught is now engulfing millions in — especially in the east along this frontline that is going straight through the communities of Luhansk and Donetsk. But also from the north, from the south, there are military attacks, so hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians will now be displaced, and millions are actually now in some kind of a crossfire. It couldn’t be worse.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your response last night, early this morning, as the invasion unfolded, as the U.N. Security Council was meeting?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I was woken up very, very early this morning because of the reports from my colleagues, the aid workers in the field in Ukraine. And, of course, it was disbelief, because nobody thought that the world would be so senseless that there would be an attack of this size, an invasion. It will lead to untold suffering in Ukraine but also refugee flows in the region as such. People will flee to Poland, to Hungary, Romania, Moldova and to Russia. There is also a lot of suffering in the self-declared so-called republics in the east. These are people who will flee to Russia. They have unleashed something that will have untold consequences, untold suffering.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you also have this movement, for example, of U.S. troops from Italy moving up, landing in Latvia. You’ve got the situation in Poland. Now there has to be deconfliction, because you could have NATO forces coming face to face with Russian forces. Can you explain that to laypeople, what that means?

JAN EGELAND: Well, a good deconfliction is something we’re also doing as humanitarians. It’s basically that anyone tells the other opposing side where they are. We have deconflicted our sites now with the Russians and with the Ukrainian Army. They know where there are humanitarian sites. They will not be attacked, we hope and believe.

But, listen, the story is the civilian suffering. The people who are engulfed by this fight and who are in crossfire are, to a large extent, elderly people. These are pensionaires that are living on a meager miner’s pension, or their widows. I was in outposts along the frontline just two weeks ago. One of these places, Opytne, there were 37 souls. The average age must have been 75 years in this place. Several said, “We’re sick.” They have cancerous husbands, cannot move. I’m thinking of them now. They are bearing the brunt of this suffering that was unleashed by people who sit in heated offices in the Kremlin and elsewhere and do not understand the suffering that they are causing.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the possibility of this getting, I mean, as if Ukraine isn’t difficult enough, so much broader? Do you think, for example, your neighbors, Finland, Sweden, would possibly consider — their leaders are saying no at this point, but consider joining NATO as a result of this — Putin strengthening NATO as opposed to what he would like to see, which is to abolish it? And there are many peace activists in the world who would also like to see that.

JAN EGELAND: Well, I mean, there is a lot of people saying Europe has changed overnight. What I hope is that instead of a continued escalation, continued military escalation, and a willingness to use untold billions of rubles, and now also billions of dollars, on military escalation, that there will be an escalation, a surge of diplomatic action. I cannot believe that people are so senseless that they will take themselves and their people down in this. I think there is still a hope for a ceasefire, that there will be also investment in the humanitarian operation, because, Amy, we had 9% of the funding for the ongoing humanitarian operation before the invasion. Now that needs have grown tenfold, will we get the funding we need to provide for those who flee? I don’t know. I hope — I hope we will at least get a fraction of what the militaries so easily are getting now across the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the U.S. has just pulled out of Afghanistan. You have warned of the devastation of this country after decades of war. I’m talking about Afghanistan. And now we are seeing Ukraine. Can you make some comparisons here and where the world’s wealth should be going as billions are now being poured into this conflict?

JAN EGELAND: Yeah, first, we’re really overstretched. I cannot remember, in my 40 years as a humanitarian worker, a period where we were as overstretched as we are now — the Afghan mega-crisis, the Syrian mega-crisis, the Yemeni mega-crisis, the Congo, the Sahel and so on — and now, on top of that, this meaningless war in Ukraine that will affect millions, not hundreds of thousands, many millions. Now, of course, it’s Europe, so I think some of those countries who will receive refugees would have resources to care for the people. This is not Afghanistan, where people lost the one dollar a day there were surviving on. But there will be also a lot of suffering here.

And there has really not been investment in humanitarian operations in Ukraine. That’s why the preparedness is not as good as it should have been to meet new waves of displacement. My colleagues on the ground are telling about panic, about disbelief, of fear. People do not know what to do, where to flee, how to get out of harm’s way. Many of our colleagues on the ground have relatives, parents on the other side of the frontlines. These are now divided societies.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think has to happen now, Jan?

JAN EGELAND: Well, we’re still saying it’s not too late to end this before the millions start to flee. What I hope is that there is a ceasefire. Listen, does it — is it naive? I hope not. We cannot accept this thing becoming, as people are saying, the biggest war in the history of Europe since the Second World War. Why does it have to come to that? And if it comes to that, we would all live to regret it. So, there has to be urgent phone calls to President Putin and saying, “Stop it. It can be stopped.” I don’t think the sanctions will stop this short-term. It is diplomatic initiatives that could stop this short-term.

AMY GOODMAN: In Norway right now, the place where the Nobel Peace Prize is given out, what is the response to what’s taking place right now? And what would you like to see? I’ll ask you the same question I asked Anatol Lieven of the Quincy Institute just a minute ago. President Biden is addressing the nation today. The U.N. is a powerful force right now in the response to Russia and what’s happening in Ukraine. What do you want him to say?

JAN EGELAND: Well, I hope he will say, “I’m going to call Putin today to talk with him directly.” They talk to each other now through the international media. It’s not good. I hope that President Biden will also be leading in a forceful humanitarian response — humanitarians being underfunding, militaries having a lot of hardware. And I hope there will be a maybe also reaching out to China and others that can influence Russia. Diplomacy must — must — be the first actor here, along with us humanitarians. We’re not leaving Ukraine. We are there. We will remain and stay and deliver in the hour of greatest need of the Ukrainians. We also need help.

In Norway, of course, we’ve lived with Russia as a neighbor in the far north, a good neighbor now every single day since they withdrew the Red Army when the Nazis were beaten in 1945. So, in our neighborhood, we have good relations. There has to be the same understanding that war is something of the past, shouldn’t happen in Europe, in Ukraine, in 2020.

AMY GOODMAN: Jan Egeland, we want to thank you for being with us, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, speaking to us from Oslo, Norway.

Next up, we go to Greece to speak with the former Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis of the Progressive International about what the Russian invasion means for Europe. Stay with us.

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