By Pierre-Henry DESHAYES

As it rushes to help Ukrainian refugees, the West must not divert aid from poor countries also suffering from the fallout of the war, the head of a major refugee aid organisation warned.

“In my 40 years as a humanitarian worker, I have never, ever seen three million people displaced by war and conflict every week for a month”, Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), told AFP in an interview.

Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, more than 10 million people, or more than a quarter of the population, have fled their homes.

Of those, more than 3.8 million have fled the country to seek refuge in neighbouring countries, though the outflow has slowed in recent days.

Poland alone has welcomed more than half of them, but Romania, Moldova — one of the poorest countries in Europe — Hungary and Slovakia have also taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees each.

Volunteers, organisations and NGOs are doing their best to help.

“I saw 2015 which started with ‘Refugees, welcome to Europe’ in the beginning of the year when people were coming across the Mediterranean”.

“And I saw it end with the European championship in barbed wire erection, where each country was fighting to avoid protecting and shielding women and children fleeing from terror and violence in Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere”.

There “will not be the same amount of volunteerism in six or nine months from now, and that’s why we need government services to take over”, he said.

– ‘Horrifically negative news’ –

The European response to Ukraine’s needs has been “very good so far”, Egeland said.

“The Ukraine appeal was (for) $1.7 billion and it came immediately as a humanitarian appeal for funding. It was fully funded within days”, he noted.

“I wish we had the same response to the Yemeni appeal, which was addressing even more people that were even poorer in Yemen.”

“It asked for $4.2 billion and we got less there than we got for Ukraine”, he lamented.

Launched on March 16, the Yemen appeal resulted in $1.3 billion in pledges to come to the aid of 17.2 million people in a war-torn country on the brink of famine.

“There’s no doubt that a war in Europe is horrifically negative news for the poorest people of the Sahel”, he said.

“Everything has become much more expensive”, he noted.

“The wheat that they got from Russia and Ukraine may not now come. Prices are going through the roof. Fuel is much more expensive. Our operations are much more expensive”.

“At the same time, some of the donors are diverting funding from the very poor countries to Europe.”

Observers fear that a lack of grain could trigger food riots in the Middle East and North Africa.

According to the UN, grain prices have already exceeded the levels seen at the start of the Arab Spring and food riots of 2007-2008.

“And thirdly, we see the Cold War now between the powers that we need to cooperate on (UN) Security Council resolutions”, Egeland said.

“How will we have resolutions on Syria in the future if Russia and the US cannot cooperate anymore?”

– Forgotten crises –

“We need now to defend the aid budgets”, Egeland said.

In Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Somalia, aid workers recount “how overwhelmed they are, how overstretched they are in exploding emergencies and nobody seems to care”.

“So that’s our challenge: respond to great needs in Europe, and especially inside Ukraine, and then at the same time respond to needs equally elsewhere”.

Each year, the NRC draws up a ranking of the world’s most neglected crises.

The Democratic Republic of Congo topped the list in 2020, ahead of Cameroon, Burundi, Venezuela and Honduras.

“I hope that the outpouring of resources for Ukraine, the volunteerism for Ukraine, the willingness to receive and shield and help Ukrainians, will also be translated to the emergencies elsewhere from Syria to Ethiopia, from Afghanistan to Venezuela”, Egeland said.

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© Agence France-Presse