Czech NGOs handing out food and hygiene kits along vast refugee lines on EU borders

Ukrainian refugees in Vyšné Nemecké, Slovakia

As the war in Ukraine reaches its sixth day, many Czech NGOs are helping directly in the country or on its borders with the EU. One of them is People in Need (Človek v tísni). To find out what the situation is like on the borders and for Ukrainian refugees, I spoke to People in Need’s media coordinator for Ukraine, Milan Votýpka.

“People in Need are currently working at the Ukrainian borders with Slovakia, as well as in Romania and Moldova at the moment.

“The situation is very, very bad, especially on the Ukrainian side where people are waiting in very long lines. According to the latest information we have, it takes people waiting in these lines about 24 hours before they get into Shengen Zone territories. There is neither food nor water along these lines. The hygiene situation is very bad. It’s very complicated and our organisation is doing its best to help these people.”

How specifically are you helping Ukrainian refugees at border crossings/ border areas?

“The situation is very, very bad, especially on the Ukrainian side where people are waiting in very long lines.”

“Currently, we have been able to get into Ukraine from the Slovak side. We have started distributing food there and have brought mobile toilets. We are starting with hygiene kit distribution and food distribution.

“We hope that we will be able to do the same from the Polish side, where the lines are really terrible, in the upcoming days. For our team based in Lviv this is a real priority and we are going to start distribution there in, I hope, hours or days.”

I see, so your aim is to help the refugees in Ukraine before they get to the border crossing, correct?

Milan Votypka | Photo: archive of Uprchlíci vítejte

“Yes. I was talking about Lviv, because we have Czech expats there and also our Ukrainian team is there right now as well. Therefore, it is a priority for them to help those people waiting in lines on the way to the border, distributing hygiene kits, food, water, basically whatever is needed for those people. The situation there is terrible.”

Have you noticed an upsurge in Czech volunteers as the media are reporting in recent days? Are they helping there?

“Yes, it’s true. I have information that there are many organisations and many Czech volunteers trying to help directly at the border. The situation is a bit chaotic, so we don’t know exactly how this is working, but there are many people there right now.”

How would you advise people who are very eager to help? What should they do? Some NGOs have, for example, warned people not to travel to EU-Ukraine borders as it just adds to the chaos.

“Yes. We had a talk with the Ukrainian ambassador who advised people not to travel to the borders, because it just creates chaos, blocks the roads and so on.

“I have information that there are many organisations and many Czech volunteers trying to help directly at the border.”

“Therefore, I would like to ask people not to travel to the border and to follow the website pomahejukrajine.cz, which has the most accurate and up to date information regarding what people can do.

“I would also like to ask people to find local NGOs and help there, because, as far as we expect, this situation will last very long. Helping save power and energy, as well as helping people in the Czech Republic, is very important too.”

Are there any specific things that are most useful in terms of donating right now? Is it just money, or also items of clothing for example?

Photo: Czarek Sokolowski,  ČTK/AP

“Money is always the most important thing, because NGOs are able to buy the things that they need the most with it. Therefore, if possible, we ask people to contribute to various fundraisers. This is one way.

“Another way is to offer accommodation for Ukrainian refugees. For example, there is a website called uprchlici-vitejte.cz, also known as Refugees Welcome, where people can register and offer accommodation for people who are coming into the Czech Republic at the moment.”

Before we finish, I just wanted to ask you about those people working for People in Need in Ukraine. Where in Ukraine are you operating?

“At the moment, all of our employees are in Lviv and are trying to run all operations from there.”

Aside from People in Need, the Czech branch of the NGO Caritas is also setting up a station on the EU border with Ukraine. Caritas Regional Manager Evžen Diviš says that some Ukrainian refugees are also already in the Czech Republic.

“I would also like to ask people to find local NGOs and help there, because, as far as we expect, this situation will last very long.”

“My estimate is that it might be several thousands of people. However, many more are obviously expected. Regional and local Caritas organisations are getting ready for that influx. The Czech Caritas network will work together with state authorities which are expected to coordinate the whole thing. Local Caritas organisations are therefore currently clarifying what accommodation capacities they will be able to offer and what they can offer in terms of material and non-food distribution.

“We are also operating a Ukrainian hotline. This has been in service for many years, but recently we expanded its working hours, so that it is able to provide information support to those Ukrainians who arrive, as well as information for people in Ukraine itself.”