The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused one of the largest and fastest forced displacement crises since World War II, according to Monsignor Robert Vitillo, secretary general of the International Catholic Migration Commission (ICMC).
“Refugees from Ukraine recorded across Europe: eight million,” Vitillo said. “Refugees from Ukraine registered for temporary or similar national protection schemes in Europe: 4.8 million. The number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in Ukraine: 17.6 million.”
Vitillo discussed the state of Ukraine’s refugee crisis and the work of Catholic humanitarian organizations to aid displaced citizens at an event co-sponsored by the Boston College School of Social Work, the Office of Global Education, and the Church in the 21st Century Center on Friday afternoon.
“Women and children make up 90 percent of people fleeing the crisis and are at risk of gender-based violence, sexual exploitation, and abuse,” Vitillo said “As the war stretches out, integrating long term actions focusing on the protection of women and children to mitigate their vulnerabilities to the conflict, is recognized as a priority that should be complementary to providing basic needs.”
Vitillo examined the crisis first hand in early July of last year when he and some of his ICMC colleagues took a solidarity mission to Ukraine and Poland to show their support for the Ukrainian people.
“We initiated our trek in Kraków, Poland, where we saw the long lines of mothers, babies and elderly grandparents who had been waiting in the hot sun for hours to access food and personal hygiene products,” Vitillo said. “I heard them anxious in sharing their fears that nothing would be left on the shelves, or that the store was closed before they made it to the front of the line.”
Vitillo explained the distress he saw on the faces of those who had been forced from their homes. He said he was inspired by the gratitude the refugees expressed to the local church for the care it gave them.
“One woman pointed out that food and shelter was not enough since they needed to ease their hearts and their souls,” Vitillo said. “They said they found that kind of care at the seminary where they were welcomed.”
Vitillo said the ICMC ultimately decided to partner with other humanitarian groups in Ukraine rather than opening direct operations in the country.
“Upon our return, from the visit in Ukraine, we at ICMC decided to avoid opening any direct operations there. At the strong recommendation of the papal nuncio to Ukraine, we have sought partnership with dioceses, religious orders, and Catholic-inspired humanitarian needs.”
Vitillo announced at the event that the ICMC is partnering with the Ukrainian Knights of Columbus as well as the Greek and Latin Catholic seminaries to help raise funds and provide psychological trauma treatment for refugees. He also highlighted the struggle for refugees to find asylum after fleeing Ukraine.
“Some countries are refusing entry to those who wish to present an asylum claim,” Vitillo said. “Others are claiming that all new arrivals are really economic migrants, even though they have not examined the individual and family situations to determine whether or not such persons have a credible fear of persecution or life threatening circumstances.”
Vitillo said he finds the hope refugees hold that they will one day return home to be especially remarkable.
“The children tapped into our heartstrings,” Vitillo said. “Their paintings showed us the true story of worries and fears. But they also featured rays of sun and hope as they imagined a new Ukraine that could enjoy peace and security once again.”