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Humanitarian Corridors Alone Won’t Solve the Conflict in Ukraine

As violence escalates, the international community must respond urgently to a spiraling humanitarian crisis.

By , the chief executive officer of Mercy Corps.
Ukrainian refugees cross the border.
Ukrainian refugees cross the border.
Ukrainian refugees cross the border in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, on March 4. Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

That talks in Belarus between Russian and Ukrainian delegations yielded agreements for humanitarian corridors is welcome news to aid groups like Mercy Corps—the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organization I lead. But these corridors will only provide a slice of help in an enormous crisis. It remains to be seen whether the humanitarian corridors will be implemented in good faith, allowing for safe evacuations and deliveries of much-needed food, medicine, and other aid.

Humanitarian actors need full and unimpeded access to all parts of Ukraine, no matter who is in control. Ultimately, the only solution is for the fighting to stop. Aid is needed on a massive scale to meet the spiraling humanitarian crisis. More than 1 million people have already fled the country, and the United Nations estimates 10 million Ukrainians—one-quarter of the country’s population—are now displaced, both inside and outside of Ukraine.

There are many challenges to reaching those in need beyond potential humanitarian corridors, and as our teams bring relief work, that list grows rapidly. How do we get funding and services to those trapped in cities now under siege or surrounded by tanks? How do we get hot meals and medical aid to those sheltering on subway platforms?

That talks in Belarus between Russian and Ukrainian delegations yielded agreements for humanitarian corridors is welcome news to aid groups like Mercy Corps—the humanitarian, development, and peacebuilding organization I lead. But these corridors will only provide a slice of help in an enormous crisis. It remains to be seen whether the humanitarian corridors will be implemented in good faith, allowing for safe evacuations and deliveries of much-needed food, medicine, and other aid.

Humanitarian actors need full and unimpeded access to all parts of Ukraine, no matter who is in control. Ultimately, the only solution is for the fighting to stop. Aid is needed on a massive scale to meet the spiraling humanitarian crisis. More than 1 million people have already fled the country, and the United Nations estimates 10 million Ukrainians—one-quarter of the country’s population—are now displaced, both inside and outside of Ukraine.

There are many challenges to reaching those in need beyond potential humanitarian corridors, and as our teams bring relief work, that list grows rapidly. How do we get funding and services to those trapped in cities now under siege or surrounded by tanks? How do we get hot meals and medical aid to those sheltering on subway platforms?

Today, more refugees are arriving in border towns across the country, exhausted from their long journeys. My colleague relayed to me a conversation she had this week with Iryna, 38, whose name has been changed to protect her identity: “I don’t remember what day it is. I don’t remember what I’m wearing and what I ate today,” she said, after escaping Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, and crossing into Moldova. “My little son mutters in a dream, ‘I want to go back to my Kyiv.’”

As the conflict in Ukraine worsens, more people find themselves in need of the basics to stay alive: food, water, and shelter. Humanitarian organizations are also working to get people cash or credit so they can buy essential items. Mercy Corps teams are reporting that towns on the Romanian and Polish borders are already overwhelmed with people crossing over. In Sighetu Marmatiei, Romania, our teams say most people arrive on foot in freezing temperatures, often in shock and sometimes separated from their families. Local authorities and organizations are doing their best to provide the assistance they can, but they do not have the capacity to support such a huge and potentially sustained influx of refugees.

Furthermore, the effects of the conflict in Ukraine will reverberate to Europe and around the world. Ukraine is a key supplier of wheat, corn, and sunflower oil. Disruptions to supply chains will affect other humanitarian efforts during a time of heightened food insecurity in several regions, including Afghanistan, where more than half the population needs assistance to survive, and the drought-stricken Horn of Africa.

It is vital that the international community responds quickly and in earnest to the United Nations’ $1.7 billion for Ukraine, announced by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres on March 1. Speaking at the launch on behalf of nongovernmental organizations, I shared the most urgent priorities in assisting Ukraine and the region.

First, we continue our pleas to all parties for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, and for the upholding of international humanitarian law. Bleak reports of civilian casualties continue to mount, and no amount of humanitarian aid will ever replace lives lost.

Second, we welcome the speed with which both major donors and ordinary citizens are moving to support the response. But funding must be as fast, flexible, and local as possible to ensure the humanitarian community can respond to changes on the ground and assist people accordingly. The U.S. Agency for International Development and State Department must scale up their assistance rapidly and directly fund local organizations with deep roots in the communities most affected by the conflict. They can work with international organizations like Mercy Corps to ensure any response supports a locally led effort. At the same time, our teams on the ground are assessing how our organization can best support the global humanitarian response. We are working to get initial grants into the hands of local groups already responding to community needs.

Third, European governments and the broader aid sector must support all people fleeing Ukraine and ensure that marginalization based on race or ethnicity has no place in our humanitarian responses. Many countries have opened their arms to refugees, but people of African and Asian descent fleeing Ukraine have faced additional obstacles when trying to cross into neighboring countries. European countries must honor everyone’s right to cross international borders during conflict. All those fleeing Ukraine in search of safety—no matter their race or nationality—must be welcomed and supported.

Fourth, given the number of other pressing humanitarian emergencies around the world, it is essential that new funding not come at the cost of responding to ongoing crises, such as those in Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa, or Yemen. The international community faces critical tipping points in each of these crises; we must address the underlying fragility that has brought the world to a point where 274 million people will need humanitarian assistance in 2022, a significant increase from the 235 million people in need one year ago—already the highest figure in decades. As in Ukraine, the solution to many of these crises is a diplomatic solution for peace.

People all over the world are now glued to their TVs and phones, anxiously following news from Ukraine. Unfortunately, this emergency will likely last much longer than the world’s attention will remain focused on it. Now is the moment to prepare for its unfolding humanitarian catastrophe, which will affect Ukraine and its neighbors for years to come.

Tjada D’Oyen McKenna is the chief executive officer of Mercy Corps, which operates in more than 40 countries around the world. Twitter: @Tjada

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