The head of the emergency response division of the Ukrainian Red Cross says efforts to help people affected by the war with Russia have been hampered by a controversy enveloping its international counterpart and its role in the conflict.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been accused of being overly co-operative with Moscow and criticized for considering opening an office in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia close to the Ukrainian border, which some say could be used to facilitate the expulsion of Ukrainians.
The president of the ICRC, Peter Maurer, has further infuriated critics by being photographed shaking hands with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after a recent meeting in Moscow.
This week a group of Ukrainian MPs appealed to the ICRC to reconsider its plans for the Russian office. More than 3,000 people, including representatives from dozens of Ukrainian humanitarian organizations, have signed an open letter to Mr. Maurer calling on his organization to do more to stop forced evacuations and work more effectively with local volunteers. And the Ukrainian Canadian Congress has written to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau asking him to raise concerns about the Rostov-on-Don office and question how donations to the Canadian Red Cross are being spent in Ukraine.
ICRC officials say the accusations are unfounded – that the Red Cross would never evacuate people against their will. The organization said it works with all sides in conflict zones to help those in need and always remains neutral.
It set up a temporary office in Rostov-on-Don when fighting broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 to help people fleeing the conflict, but that office closed in 2018. Any new branch would serve a purpose similar to that of Red Cross shelters in other border countries, such as Poland, Romania and Hungary, which are helping thousands of refugees fleeing the war.
“To be clear: The ICRC does not want to open an office in southern Russia to ‘filter’ Ukrainians, as many reports are alleging. We are not opening a refugee camp or any other type of camp,” the organization said in a statement. It added that it was facing “deliberate, targeted attacks using false narratives and disinformation to discredit the ICRC.”
Taras Logginov, who heads the emergency response division of the Ukrainian Red Cross, said the outcry has hurt the local charity, which is completely separate from the ICRC. “After all the negative coverage of the Red Cross, from Facebook, from the government, it’s just backfired on our organization,” he said in an interview in Kyiv Wednesday. His group is already in desperate need of supplies and protective equipment for volunteers, he said, and the controversy has left many questioning the integrity of the Red Cross in general.
Mr. Logginov said part of the problem is the public’s lack of understanding of the global Red Cross structure. There are three distinct branches: national organizations such as the Ukrainian Red Cross; the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, which works with national organizations; and the ICRC, which operates in conflict areas and is the guardian of the Geneva Conventions. The ICRC receives funding from governments that are signatories to the conventions, which govern the treatment of prisoners of war and civilians during wartime.
Mr. Logginov said he had some tense discussions with the ICRC early in the war over its lack of assistance in some areas of heavy fighting, including Mariupol and Kyiv. And he has had a running dispute with the international group for years over efforts to train the Ukrainian army in first aid, something the ICRC has frowned upon. But he said relations have improved lately and he has no doubt about the ICRC’s neutrality. “I know that ICRC is very neutral. They don’t make any conflict.”
Red Cross volunteer Valentina Cherkai said she has faced backlash as a result of the controversy. Ms. Cherkai is a nurse who also puts in long volunteer shifts at a Red Cross tent in the Kyiv train station. The small operation has helped a steady stream of people since the war began, often treating wounds and other trauma. “A lot of bad words are addressed to us, and some people turn more aggressive,” she said Wednesday. “They think that Red Cross is bad. They think that if ICRC talks to the Russian side, they are supporting Russia.”
Ms. Cherkai said the misinformation has unfairly tarnished the reputation of both Red Cross organizations. “The ICRC should talk to both sides of the armed conflict and they just trying to do their job. There are a lot of manipulations in media and social media,” she said. “I know that they are trying to do their best.”
Alyona Synenko, an ICRC spokesperson based in Kyiv, said the charity was concerned about the damage the criticism has caused the Red Cross movement. “We are extremely worried about this,” she said. “The spread of misinformation can be dangerous.”
She said the ICRC has been working closely with the local Red Cross and has helped distribute 500 tonnes of humanitarian supplies. It has also opened a safe passage area around Sumy, in northeastern Ukraine, to help evacuate people to other Ukrainian towns.
She added that Mr. Maurer travelled to Moscow after spending five days in Ukraine and meeting with top government officials. “We are speaking to both parties on behalf of the civilian population affected by this conflict,” she said.
In a statement, the Canadian Red Cross said it had raised more than $128-million to help people in Ukraine, which includes $30-million in matching funds from the federal government. It added that $82.5-million had been directed to aid efforts on the ground, “with approximately two-thirds of that amount to support people in Ukraine and one-third of that amount to help people from Ukraine who are displaced in surrounding countries.”
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