Ordinary people helping Ukrainians deserve applause

Charity can be a messy business in times of conflict, but that shouldn't deter us from giving

Ukrainians queue to board a train in Zahony, Hungary, on Saturday. Getty Images

For the second time in less than 12 months, the world is rallying in the face of a mass exodus of people from their homeland.

About three million Ukrainians have crossed the country's western borders to seek shelter from the war. Large numbers of Afghans were uprooted last summer following the Taliban takeover of their country. Elements of how people have responded to both tragedies are very similar.

A jagged array of cardboard boxes filled with donations is stacked at reception centres or drop-off points. This is a most obvious manifestation that people care; that they are stirred to help. They go to the trouble of taking a bulky package and delivering it to the volunteers who promised to get it to the displaced. There are other signs of the visceral will to help, such as the vans crisscrossing Europe, driven by people who want to help transport arrivals from the border to new sanctuaries all around the continent.

The 18th-century thinker and politician Edmund Burke would have viewed this as the mobilisation of the "Little Platoons" – family, church and local community – that he saw as the “link points” of social capitalism. An individual so motivated can contribute money, labour or ingenuity to help those fleeing.

The public's attitude compares well to that of the officials in charge of the immigration-based response to the crisis

Yet, there is also something of a backlash about the rush to give, especially where heavy items are involved. The goods mount up in what the shipping industry calls "irregular loads". There is nothing homogenised about the piles of donations. And the costs of sorting, loading and reloading can easily exceed the underlying value.

The gift can actually cost more, even to dispose in a landfill, than any presumed value on the part of the giver. Cash to buy the components of care packages, such as shampoo, is much better spent in Moldova, which shares a border with Ukraine, than sending bottles from faraway UK.

When the Afghan crisis was at its height, one community organisation I know had to close donations. Car after car turned up with children's toys, necessities and other old and new material. There are trends that pose challenges. For example, many people give shoes for infants but relatively few give trainers for six-year-old boys. So it is messy. And for those involved, it is stressful.

The founder of a charity that closed its doors to deliveries last August related to me how tricky it had been. They had been overwhelmed by donations both in person and online. Their volunteers had to give up weekends and worked long overtime. They watched in some places as people lodged in hotels felt compelled to fight over deliveries dumped in a pile at the gate.

Miss Universe Czech Republic drops off donations for Afghan refugees in Los Angeles.

Still, however stressful the chaos was, it is nothing compared to the uncertainty and distress being felt by the Afghans and now the Ukrainians. No one can tell them how long their ordeal will take and what will happen to ensure a normal life afterwards. And that is the crux of the issue. People who give are engaged and caring. The nature of the donations can be influenced by giving the right messages, but there must be no suggestion that it is unwanted.

The public's attitude certainly compares well to that of the officials in charge of the immigration-based response to the crisis.

The UK, for instance, has insisted that those leaving Ukraine get visas before trying to get into the country. While Poland, Ukraine's neighbour, has accepted 1.5 million refugees, the UK figures still languish in the low thousands.

The London-based Institute for Government, a prestigious monitor of bureaucracy, has said that the response of the UK Home Office to the Ukraine crisis "lacks empathy and imagination". By rigidly insisting on its procedures, it failing to match the public mood. It has prioritised "control" over compassion.

The UK Home Office in London. EPA

The policy came about as the UK sought to provide specific channels to route the Ukraine exodus. On one level the officials calculated that giving the tens of thousands of people already in the UK the right to bring over family members would pull in substantial numbers. A second method allows UK citizens to sponsor the arrival of a person fleeing Ukraine, something that it said was uncapped.

However, it was ignoring one of the most important aspects of the crisis – that people were already fleeing at the fastest rate seen this century in Europe. And, therefore, setting up new rules was always going to be a barrier, not an enabler.

The European approach has been vastly different. It did not go as far as seven years before, when it recognised huge numbers coming from the Syrian and Iraqi battlefields as refugees. The bloc, instead, granted a three-year temporary protection for all Ukrainians. This enshrines the same entitlement of non-refoulement – or freedom from deportation – as international conventions grant to those with refugee status.

For now, the bedrock belief that the Ukrainians will go home as soon as they realise they won’t face irreparable harm is a source of hope to sustain those who have fled the war. In time, we will know if their status needs to harden to that of “refugees” if and when Russia consolidates its grip on their home.

The most important thing is that they can get out, and that as many people as possible help them during their ordeal.

Published: March 14, 2022, 4:00 AM