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Ladies and Gentlemen,
Thank you for affording me the opportunity to address you on the occasion of your important deliberations.
While I appreciate that this meeting is intended to discuss general issues of international co-operation to address violations of human rights and humanitarian law, I wish to frame my own remarks within the context of Ukraine. Of course, given the mandate of the Fundamental Rights Agency, my remarks will concern relevant issues within EU territory. Nevertheless, my first thoughts are with the people of Ukraine. I spent time in Sarajevo during its siege, and, since then, I have served the United Nations in other war zones around the world. These experiences have made vivid for me the unspeakable horrors experienced by children, women and men who are under attack. Indeed, for those who survive the trauma is lifelong.
The numbers of people displaced into the EU are the highest since the Second World War. As of the end of last week, some 3.6 million people had arrived with some 2 million to Poland, 270,000 to Slovakia, 320,000 to Hungary and 750,000 to Romania. Of the total number of arrivals, over 1.8 million are children. 170,000 are non-Ukrainians, mainly Indians, Azerbaijanis, and Russians.
My Agency recently concluded a first mission to assess the situation on the EU/Ukraine frontiers from a human rights point of view.
We were deeply impressed by the evidence of tremendous solidarity for people in flight. Right across the four neighbouring countries – Poland, Slovakia, Romania, and Hungary - we witnessed impressive reception efforts, deep generosity, and innovative responses to urgent needs. These were manifested by local authorities, border guards and other security services, volunteers, and residents.
Border controls appear to function efficiently, procedures are fast tracked. Legal information and assistance is provided.
National and local authorities operate Reception Points, providing humanitarian aid and overnight stays. Reception facilities were set up in record time. Christian and Jewish faith organisations and communities are present everywhere providing important humanitarian support.
Almost all arrivals are vulnerable or very vulnerable: pregnant women, infants, old people, and disabled persons. Arrivals of unaccompanied children reported to FRA by authorities and civil society are dealt with by border authorities on the basis of national law, with children put into protective care. We were informed that some children from Ukrainian institutions, including children with disabilities, were immediately transferred to specialised facilities in Spain, Sweden and elsewhere.
In several locations, we observed the good practice of immediately placing children in classes of local schools to help them cope with the stress and trauma of forced displacement.
The risk of human trafficking is very high. We noted informal postings outside reception centres with transportation, job or accommodation offers. Although access to border crossing points and reception facilities is controlled by police, we advised border authorities to make additional efforts to inform about the risks of human trafficking orally in simple language and warn against accepting rides, accommodation or job offers by anyone not authorised.
There have been reports of racism and discrimination against third-country national and members of the Roma community. We did not witness any such incident during the mission. However, as such incidents can occur, authorities must be diligent to prevent them, and civil society actors should encourage and facilitate victims to report them.
A month into this crisis, while acknowledging the deeply impressive first responses, it is time to further systematise the welcome afforded to the displaced persons. For instance, the provision of humanitarian aid, legal assistance and interpretation currently rests heavily on volunteers and local authorities as first responders. This is not sustainable in the long run and durable solutions need to be identified to support volunteers.
It is also necessary to start planning for prolonged stays through relocations in the EU and integration measures. Such measures need to consider:
In order to facilitate the respectful reception of people displaced from Ukraine, the European Union, on 4 March, activated the Temporary Protection Directive. Under the directive, those eligible - Ukraine citizens, recognised refugees and those holding permanent residence – are granted protection in the EU for a minimum of one year. On this basis they have a right of residency, access to the labour market, housing, education, social welfare, health care and guardianship for unaccompanied children.
So far, 26 Member States have transposed the Temporary Protection Directive into national law. My agency is currently examining the terms of the transpositions to encourage uniform approaches that also address the humanitarian needs of those non-Ukrainian nationals that are not otherwise covered by the directive’s prescriptive terms.
Other EU initiatives include substantial humanitarian assistance and activation of the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and a major redirection of cohesion funding. The EU Commission is also proposing to prolong the implementation period for the money available to Member States under its Home Affairs funds, which would free-up significant additional resources.
Beyond the plight of the displaced, the war in Ukraine is focussing attention on a great deal of human rights issues and concerns. Prominent among these is the importance of a free media. Within the European Union it is imperative that we stay heavily invested in strong independent journalism. This includes developing smart ways to support Ukrainian journalists, including those who have had to flee.
It has been suggested by some that recent actions in the EU to prohibit the broadcasts of certain media outlets are incompatible with such a principled approach. However, the prohibitions, serving the purpose of blocking propaganda for war and incitement to hatred, were designed with reference to the applicable international and regional human rights law and jurisprudence. Moreover, they have been adopted in a rule of law environment that allows for them to be tested and challenged before independent courts.
As important as a free media is the role of human rights defenders. They require our unwavering support. Many remain in Ukraine. Others who have been displaced continue to play very important roles, including for the documentation of crimes, with a view to future accountability.
Another important human rights issue concerns the wellbeing of Russians and Belarussians as well as of Russian language communities in EU Member States. We must be vigilant in protecting their human rights. In this regard I welcome the repeated strong statements of political leaders that repudiate any acts of discrimination, exclusion, or harassment.
If you will allow me to return to the conflict and to my personal experience – I worked in Sierra Leone during its civil war. On one occasion, I entered a town just hours after a pitched battle. The population had fled, almost everything was destroyed, fires were still smouldering, bodies lay on the ground. Only a handful of people were to be seen - old and disabled men and women, many injured - helping each other to cross over the rubble. They had been left behind, abandoned. Their dreadful plight was a reminder of how – in any war - it is the least powerful who suffer the most. It is my hope that the protection of the human rights of such people will be at the heart of your deliberations today.