At the Ukraine Border, Volunteers Struggle to Make Up for Absent NGOs

At the Ukraine Border, Volunteers Struggle to Make Up for Absent NGOs
Czech volunteer Lukas Saranga cooks soup in a giant pot for refugees fleeing Ukraine at the train station at the border crossing of Medyka, Poland, March 8, 2022 (AP photo by Visar Kryeziu).

WARSAW, Poland—Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, war refugees have been flooding across the country’s western border into Poland, greeted by local Poles, international volunteers and a few small NGOs operating in the country. How is this effort going three weeks into Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II? In Poland this week, I asked these questions of journalists, aid workers and Polish citizens.

The reality is, almost as unprecedented as the refugee flows is the absence of most of the big NGOs that Americans think of—and are most likely to donate money to—when it comes to a refugee crisis. I did not even see an office for UNHCR—the United Nations Refugee Agency—in the Warsaw train station. And while the International Organization for Migration had a solitary, mostly empty tent at a border crossing I visited, grassroots volunteers there told me that “they just did it to plant a flag, not to help.”

This is a dramatic difference from most refugee crises where, as political scientists Alexander Cooley and James Ron famously described, all the major NGOs and international organizations—Doctors Without Borders, the International Rescue Committee and the World Food Program, among others—along with hundreds of smaller ones normally descend to provide relief in exchange for short-term contracts by major donors such as the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID. The U.S. Congress did in fact recently approve an enormous aid package for Ukraine, but USAID’s “implementing partners”—the U.N. agencies and big international NGOs—are nowhere to be seen. Why?

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