Assisting Ukraine’s Uprooted – UNHCR and Partners in Action

Feature Interview: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative in Ukraine Pablo Mateu speaks to Bohdan Nahaylo

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Bohdan Nahaylo

Assisting Ukraine’s Uprooted – UNHCR and Partners in Action
Assisting Ukraine’s Uprooted – UNHCR and Partners in Action

Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Bohdan Nahaylo for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv.




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Feature Interview: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Ukraine Pablo Mateu speaks to Bohdan Nahaylo

Nahaylo: I have great pleasure today in welcoming this week’s guest Pablo Mateu, who is the Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ukraine. I am particularly pleased because I am a former UNHCR employee. I spent 20 years with the organization and had the privilege of working alongside Pablo. He has served in many countries. It’s fortunate for Ukraine in time of misfortune to have such an experienced and seasoned UNHCR manager, campaigner, and humanitarian. So welcome to the program, Pablo!

Mateu: Thank you so much for having me here, Bohdan.

Nahaylo: I am not going to assume that all of our listeners know all the legal aspects of defending refugees and IDPs [Internally Displaced People], or the scale of humanitarian challenges in this country. In these 20 minutes or so let’s put things in perspective. Let’s begin by asking how many internally displaced persons does UNHCR have on its books at this moment in Ukraine? 

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Representative in Ukraine Pablo Mateu and Bohdan Nahaylo Hromadske Radio

Mateu: The Ukrainian Ministry of Social Policy registers internally displaced people. According to their latest statistics there are 1.6 million internally displaced persons (IDPs) registered.

Nahaylo: Which is a large figure. It’s certainly up to the scale of the former Yugoslavia conflicts in the 1980s.

Mateu: Indeed. For a country of 43 million, I think it is quite a large percentage of the population. We have to keep in mind that some of displaced people have decided not to register.

Nahaylo: Are these displaced just in Ukraine? Russia claims a large number of displaced people there. Belarus also claims it has refugees. 

Mateu: That figure -1.6 million- reflects only the Ukrainians that have decided to remain within the territory of Ukraine.  We have a significant number of Ukrainians who have gone abroad. They have not all asked for asylum. Many of them have also looked for alternative forms of residency.  If we take, for example, Belarus, they have about 2,000 Ukrainians who are recognized as refugees. But they have about 250, 000 Ukrainians who have a different form of residency, which has been granted by the Belarusian government. Poland has taken a similar approach. In other words, those who have been recognized as refugees are very few, but they [neighbouring countries] have decided to grant different type of migratory status to quite a few thousands of Ukrainians.

Nahaylo: Is this a kind of humanitarian status?

Mateu: No. Some of them have received student visas or temporary work permits. We have to keep in mind that Ukrainians traditionally migrated. I think the crisis has accelerated that process. Some neighboring countries have been generous enough to grant different forms of residency permits.

Nahaylo: We had a huge outflow at the beginning of the 20th century to Canada, USA, South America and a lot of economic migrants in more recent times to Italy, Portugal, etc. If we take the Russian and Belarusian figures, the numbers would suggest that there about 2 million displaced people from Eastern Ukraine now?

Mateu: It is difficult to say that all of these people are from Eastern Ukraine. There are people from different parts of Ukraine who have decided to go outside of the country and look for better economic opportunities, and some of them have decided to apply for refuges status. But they are not necessarily all from Eastern Ukraine.

Nahaylo: If you could also explain for our listeners clearly: they [the IDPs] have material and social needs, but they are also in need of legal protection.

Mateu: Correct. When we discuss with IDPs and when we look at some of the surveys conducted, for example by the World Bank or by the International Organization for Migration, there are two concerns that come to the top of the list of displaced people problems. One is housing, as many of them are struggling to find affordable housing. Second is employment. There are also legal issues on the list of problems. For example, being able to legalize small business when sometimes there is an internal document that says they are residents of a different province. Some of the children who are born in those areas which are not currently controlled by the government of Ukraine and registering them as Ukrainian citizens can be problematic. There is a process established by law, but that process has quite a few requirements that some families are not always able to meet.

Nahaylo: I am just reminding our listeners that I am talking to Pablo Mateu, Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Ukraine. Tell me, Pablo, about what the government has actually done. How well has it coped in dealing with this unexpected and large challenge in recent years?

Mateu: A lot of people highlight the initial response of the civil society to the displacement crisis. We have to recognize that civil society in Ukraine were the first respondents. But we also have to admit that the regional and municipal authorities also reacted quite quickly. We also have to recognize that the central government in Ukraine has taken very positive steps from the very beginning. Let me just give you three examples.  First, they refused to establish IDP camps.

Nahaylo: What is the significance of that?  It is not apparent…

Mateu: When you establish camps either for refugees or IDPs, you are basically isolating them. There are quite a lot of social problems that come with it. Sometimes you are going to create ghettos. Instead the government refused the pressure from some of the organizations to establish the camps and they decided that displaced people should integrate into communities. That was a very positive move. Second, they passed legislation on internal displacement, which is not perfect but it incorporates some of the international standards and principles. That is also a very positive measure taken by the central government.  Third, they created a dedicated Ministry in 2016 to look after not just internally displaced but also over the temporary occupied territories. This happened much faster than in Georgia, for example, where there is also a dedicated ministry. Does this mean that everything is perfect? Obviously not.

Nahaylo: Are there new pieces of legislation in the pipeline, that have been there for a long time?

Mateu: There are quite a lot of amendments to Internally Displaced legislation, and there is quite a lot of legislation in the pipeline that would affect those who are living in areas not controlled by the government. As the UN Refugee Agency we are trying to advise the government and the parliament on this legislation. We are trying to point out some potential negative impact of some of the articles that are currently being discussed. Sometimes they follow our advice. Sometimes we have to advocate still more.

Nahaylo: In real practical terms how is the government is assisting the IDPs apart from allowing them to settle in other areas? Are these unfortunate people, victims of the conflict, receiving social assistance? How are they receiving assistance with finding employment? Is it difficult to find, as you said.

Mateu: I think they are. A lot of times we give recognition to the international organizations, or to NGOs that are supporting the displaced. But the government has actually also established certain measures and certain programs to support them. There is a decree that stipulates a monthly payment to Internally Displaced. Let’s say that in real terms that’s not a lot, but if you add it up, it’s 1.6 million people who are receiving that particular kind of stipend. That’s like a cash grant and they can use it for any type of need that they have.

Nahaylo: In terms of the geography of the displacement, is the bulk of IDPs still in Eastern Ukraine or are they scattered fairly evenly over the country? 

Mateu: I think most of them decided to stay close to their places of original places. It means they stay in Eastern Ukraine’s five provinces. Many also came to the capital where obviously there are employment opportunities. Some of them also went to Western Ukraine. Provinces like Odesa and Kherson also have significant numbers of the displaced. But the bulk is still in Eastern Ukraine.

Nahaylo: Tell me a little bit about UNHCR’s activities and work. First, let’s clarify one thing. You represent the UN High Commission for Refugees, yet you are dealing with IDPs.

Mateu: Correct.

Nahaylo: Does this mean that in practice UNHCR now is recognized as a lead agency by default?

Mateu: As you rightly pointed out UNHCR is the UN Refugee Agency. We deal with persons who come to Ukraine and look for refuge or asylum here. That’s our main mandate. That is what we have been working on when we established our office more than 23 years ago here in Ukraine. We are still working on that issue and still supporting the government of Ukraine.

Nahaylo: Could you tell us how many refugees recognized by the government there are at this moment in Ukraine?

Mateu: There are about 3,000 recognized refugees in Ukraine at this moment. They come from more than 70 countries. The largest number is from Afghanistan, Syria, and also from former Soviet republics, including the Russian Federation. There are also more than 5,000 asylum seekers, who are still in the asylum process at different stages. They also come from very similar countries.

Nahaylo: Who deals with refugee status determination in the government system now? I remember it has changed over the years.

Mateu: The first instance is obviously the state migration service. They are the ones who conduct the process that will determine who is a refugee. But if the decision of the state migration service is negative they go to different courts. So there is an established system of checks and balances here. The state border guard services also play a role because in order to have access to the territory of Ukraine they have to go through state border guards either at the airport or land-border or land-crossing points.

Nahaylo: Returning to IDPs and UNHCR’s role, I’ve noticed that UNHCR is leading several key clusters here, the groupings among agencies to promote synergies and cooperation. What role do you play in this regard within the UN system in partnership with NGOs here?

Mateu: I think this goes back to your earlier question. UNHCR does not have a mandate per se for the internally displaced; no agency or organization does. Let’s keep in mind that the internally displaced people are citizens within their country and they should enjoy the rights of any other Ukrainian citizen. Because of that, there’s no specific agency mandated to look after the internally displaced.

So the UN and other organizations, including non-governmental organizations, come together around what we call “clusters”. There’s an educational cluster, a health cluster, and UNHCR leads two clusters where we have experience and a certain comparative advantage.

The first one is the protection cluster. It entails legistlative work, legal assistance and support for internally displaced, psychosocial support, issues related to housing, land, and property, which is an issue here, and they have a significant number of entities gathered in that cluster both in Kyiv and the East.

The second cluster is dealing with shelter. Obviously we are talking about houses and appartments that have been damaged because of the conflict. I was recently in Avdiivka and visited a family whose house was shelled for a third time. They have repaired it twice and now for a third time they need to look for support to rebuild their home. So that’s the shelter cluster, which also deals with what we call “non-food items”. Remember this is a country that is affected by the harsh climatic conditions, particularly in winter, and a lot of people who have been affected by the situation in Eastern Ukraine require, for example, assistance in winter.  Winter support to families who live along the contact line is also something that the shelter cluster coordinates.

Nahaylo: How many people do you have for national auxileries here to deal with this challenge?

Mateu: In the case of UNHCR, we have eight offices in the country in the eastern provinces, two in non-government controlled areas. We have 127 staff. A great majority of them are Ukrainian nationals, we only have 23 international staff members.

Nahaylo: Who are your main partners and main allies in this undertaking, both international and local?

Mateu: We are implementing our program through 15 partners. They are mostly non-governmental organizations. Only two are international NGOs, the rest are national entities. We are also working very closely with the newly established Ministry for Temporarily Occupied Territories and Internally Displaced Persons as well as municiplaities. For example, the municipality of Mariupol is very active in trying to support and integrate internally displaced persons. Lviv has also done quite a lot of work. And also some of the smaller municipalities, such as Irpin outside of Kyiv which has been very active in trying to support those that have decided to come from Eastern Ukraine and find a safe place.

Nahaylo: We are talking to Pablo Mateu, the UNHCR Representative in Ukraine. Let’s conclude now by trying to take stock of the costs of this huge undertaking to address these humanitarian challenges, relief efforts and legal challenges. You have led the attempts to raise money from donors. What estimates have you put out most recently, and how much has the country actually received?

Mateu: This year’s budget alone is 38 million US dollars. That’s just for UNHCR. Imagine when you start adding up all the different UN agencies: the International Committee of the Red Cross, Caritas—the Pope had this quite generous appeal for Ukraine— and the international NGOs.  And national NGOs, which have been quite efficient, I have to say, in raising funds from the Ukrainian diaspora and from supporters of Ukraine, particularly in Europe and North America. It’s a lot of money, and unfortunately as the attention of the international community goes to other places like Yemen or South Sudan, the attention is no longer on Ukraine and the humanitarian support is going down.

Nahaylo: Do you sense what we used to call “compassion fatigue” for Ukraine? Because many people see it as a frozen conflict that’s off the international radar screen, and which pops up from time to time, so it’s not seen as something that’s as acute as maybe other issues.

Mateu: Right, and unfortunately I think this is a wrong description of the conflict. The recently appointed US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker described it not as a frozen conflict when he recently visited the contact line in Eastern Ukraine. He said this is a very hot conflict. Despite that the attention, like I said, is drifting away from Ukraine. So part of our responsibility is to make sure that people around the world realize that there are still outstanding humanitarian needs.

Nahaylo: As a result of this, perhaps, lack of focus or attention, how much have you actually managed to raise out of the $37 million that you needed?

Mateu: Well, like I said, unfortunately the humanitarian donors are concentrating on other crises. We’ve managed to raise almost $12 million out of the $38 (million).

Nahaylo: And who are the main donors at this stage, over the last year or two?

Mateu: The main donors are the ones who are also supporting Ukraine in other aspects, including its program of reforms. You have the United States, you have Canada, you have the European Union and then you have individual members of the European Union, such as Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Switzerland is also a big donor, not to UNHCR, but for example to the Red Cross, and of course Japan. Japan has steadily supported, not just the humanitarian agencies but also development agencies.

Nahaylo: Pablo, we are running out time, so my last question. If you could just look into you crystal ball and look ahead. Of course at the moment there seems to be no end in sight to this war, for this conflict, but one day obviously things will have to change. UNHCR will be preparing also for contingencies for return, peace building, or rebuilding, etc. How is that already figuring in your planning?

Mateu: We have now prepared a multi-year, multi-partner protection and solutions strategy for the next five years. The solutions aspect of it is emphasized because, as you rightly said, some people are coming back and more people will probably will come back in the future, even if the conflict is still ongoing. Unfortunately there seems to be no end to the conflict for the time being. But you never know. We need to be prepared for an eventual peaceful settlement and return of the displaced.

Nahaylo: Thank you very much. I have been honoured to have as my guest this week Pablo Mateu, the Representative of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees in Ukraine. Thanks so much Pablo.

Mateu: Thank you, Bohdan.

Ukrainian tourists on Kinburn spit beach in Mykolayiv region, South Ukraine Kyrylo Loukerenko/Hromadske Radio


Extreme Heat Advisory in Ukraine

Ukraine remains in the grips of the ‘Lucifer’ heatwave that’s blanketing Eastern Europe. Although not as bad as it is in some countries, the capital Kyiv had a high of 37 degrees Celsius on Friday 11 August, well above the seasonal average. The weather is causing poor air quality in major cities. Kyiv banned entry for transport trucks on Wednesday, and has been sprinkling water over major streets to cool them down. There is risk of forest fires in 10 oblasts (regions). The record hot weather is expected to continue through the weekend.

Four Crimean Tatars Detained

Hromadske Radio and other media outlets reported that on Thursday 10 August, four Crimean Tatars were detained in Novoklenkove village, Bilohirs’k Region of the Russian occupied peninsula. Few details are available at present, but lawyer Emil Kurbedinov told Hromadske Radio that the home of a Crimean Tatar family was searched by Russian authorities. After that four men were removed and taken to an unknown location. According to Kurbedinov, the four men were relatives. Four women and at least four children remained in the house.

MPs Accused of Illegal Amber Mining in Court Again

A high profile corruption case was in the courts again this week. It’s significant because it’s two Members of Parliament who sit with the governing coalition, Maksym Poliakov and Boryslav Rosenblat who are being charged by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU) with illegal mining of amber, a very lucrative black market business. The case was brought before Kyiv’s Solomins’kyi court on Tuesday 8 August, and according to the news agency UNIAN the trial is a heated one.

Ukrainians Now Prefer Ukrainian not Russian Language Media

A study released this week shows that Ukrainians now prefer media content in the Ukrainian language rather than Russian. A study conducted by Political Scientist Dr. Volodymyr Kulyk, of Ukraine’s National Academy of Sciences, using the resources of the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology, shows that over the past five years Ukrainian audiences have shifted their preferences from Russian language media content to Ukrainian language. This is in all forms of media: newspapers, television (information and entertainment), the internet, and films. 

The War

The intensity of the conflict did not abate during the last week. Pro-Russian forces reportedly used mortars and artillery against Ukrainian units on different areas of the frontline. On 8 August the commander of Ukrainian Armed Forces Gen. Muzhenko said Russia has been forming offensive forces on the territories close to Ukrainian border. Meanwhile, on 9 August journalist Andriy Tsaplienko reported a massive relocation of military equipment on Russian territory in the direction of Ukrainian borders. During the last week 4 Ukrainian servicemen were killed in action and 20 wounded.

Old mailboxes became art in Boryspil International Airport Marta Dyczok


There’s a cool interactive exhibit in Kyiv’s Boryspil International Airport. Ukraine’s National Post Office invites passengers waiting for their flights to send postcards from Ukraine to their loved ones anywhere in the world and offers to pick up the tab for postage. Free postcards featuring classic Ukrainian paintings are available for free, and you can drop them in your choice of an old mail box, decorated by a contemporary artist.


This week’s song is by Margo Hontar. Some of you might be thinking: wait! I know that name. Yes, you heard Margo give an interview to Ukraine Calling about the Stop Fake project she co-founded last autumn. But she’s also a musician. And this is a song from her latest album with her new band called Anakard. That’s an abbreviated version of the Latin word for cashew. The song is called Misto, which means City. Imagine your favourite city while you listen and enjoy! 


Tune in again next week for a new edition of Ukraine Calling.  We would be happy to receive any feedback from you.  You can contact us by writing to [email protected]. This Bohdan Nahaylo in Kyiv. Thanks so much for listening.

Interview transcribed by Caroline Gawlik, Larysa Iarovenko and Nykole King. War by Max Sviezhentsev. News, Culture, Music by Marta Dyczok. Sound engineer Andriy Izdryk. Web support Kyrylo Loukerenko.