Skopje, 20 June 2022 (MIA) – When the Russian invasion against Ukraine started, many Ukrainians were forced to leave their homes and seek refuge in other countries. In an interview with MIA, Monica Sandri, UNHCR Representative in North Macedonia, says the impulse of solidarity in countries taking in Ukrainian refugees is astounding. EU member states took measures with the swift activation of the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time, securing access to protection and services for Ukrainian refugees. Other European states offered similar protection schemes.
On World Refugee Day – June 20, Sandri said that over five million Ukrainian refugees have sought protection all across Europe. Many of them have been placed under protection in 44 European countries, including Germany, Poland, the Russian Federation, the Czech Republic etc.
Conflict-induced displacement when people are forced to flee their homes due to war is one of the hardest things someone can face, and their status in the country they escaped to could be even worse. Has there been any recorded abuse and injustice against Ukrainian refugees in the countries they’ve fled to?
There is great generosity and solidarity towards Ukrainian refugees, which is commendable. We should, however, still remember that this refugee crisis is one of safety, primarily for women and children, given they represent 90% of all Ukrainian refugees. Risks of gender-based violence, human trafficking, abuse, trauma, and family separation, which take added support, are increased in such a situation. Luckily, there have been few registered cases of abuse.
North Macedonia has opened its doors to Ukrainians, but their status in this country is not yet defined. What conditions do they have in North Macedonia?
The state and its citizens have shown solidarity and welcomed Ukrainian refugees with open arms. Given that the war is not yet over, however, it’s crucial now that we do our utmost to give Ukrainian refugees protected status, similarly to how the EU and other countries gave them temporary protection. Solidarity and charity are not enough. Granting this status enables them to get quick access to rights, self-sustainability, makes them less dependent on help, and it helps them move on with their lives and contribute to local communities. It’s crucial that the state provides protected status for Ukrainians as soon as possible. Not having this status deprives them of free access to healthcare, education, and other important rights.
How many Ukrainian refugees are in North Macedonia?
Right now, there are over 1,000 people from Ukraine staying in North Macedonia. Out of those, 243 have regulated temporary stay due to humanitarian reasons, but, as I said before, none of them has protected status.
What sort of activities is the UNHCR taking to make things easier for Ukrainians in the country?
Since the start of the Ukrainian refugee crisis, the UNHCR has demanded protected status for the people fleeing Ukraine. We’ve also been working with other UN agencies, state institutions and NGOs to find out what Ukrainian refugees in North Macedonia need, so that we can give them adequate support.
Currently, Ukrainian refugees can use free legal aid, asylum information, a 24/7 phone-line, Macedonian language classes and humanitarian aid secured by non-government partners and UNHCR.
Are there refugees from other countries staying in North Macedonia? What’s their status?
There have always been refugees from other countries here. Their status is determined on a case-by-case basis, and most of them get subsidiary protection status. We mustn’t forget that new conflicts arise, and old ones continue with the same tempo. The number of people forced to flee grows each year and it’s now over 100 million, which is more than double compared to 10 years ago. Many of these people have gone through the same horrors and they share the same vulnerabilities and needs with Ukrainian refugees. Unfortunately, many of them have not received the same solidarity we’re witnessing nowadays.
How would you describe the situation of the refugees in the country and what activities are the state’s bodies taking in order to provide living conditions for them?
The state has established a system that provides access to rights and services from the moment when a person applies for asylum and as long as the person has asylum seeker status. This means that children have free access to education, all have free access to health care, and refugees can also work and contribute to the local economy as well as gain additional services for integration into society. UNHCR works with state institutions to improve the system and bridge existing challenges.
Photos by Frosina Naskovikj
Translated by Dragana Knezhevikj