Features | 04 Apr 2022

Ukraine crisis: ‘Connectivity is a lifeline’ says Refugee Council

People seeking sanctuary from conflict, trauma and tragedy need help in several forms, says Vodafone partner, the Refugee Council, but access to news and information is crucial.

Connectivity is critical for people fleeing the war in Ukraine, says Tamsin Baxter, Executive Director of Fundraising and External Affairs at the Refugee Council.

“It’s the difference between speaking to your husband – or your children or your parent – that you’ve left behind, or not. And for some, it’s knowing whether they’re alive or not,” she says.

“That is absolutely a lifeline.”

Vodafone has donated 3,000 smartphones to the charity, along with power banks and SIMs loaded with free connectivity for six months. The charity will then distribute them to the people most in need whether they have fled from Ukraine or elsewhere.

While the Refugee Council is helping Ukrainians arriving in the UK, this is far from the first crisis that the Refugee Council has faced. The charity was founded in 1951 to assist the many people displaced by the upheaval and horror of the Second World War. It now assists around 14,000 displaced women, men and children every year.

“We are currently facing the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since that time. So we were needed then and we are needed now,” Ms Baxter told Vodafone UK News.

Aid and assistance

The Refugee Council helps people to recover from their experiences and rebuild their lives. It has expertise in resettlement and integration services, from advising on accommodation to providing English lessons and advice. People will need help with a range of activities, whether registering with a GP, opening a bank account, or legal advice.

Most importantly, the Refugee Council provides therapy to address the trauma and other mental health issues facing adults and children, whether individually or as whole families, says Ms Baxter.

The Refugee Council is expanding its provision of English lessons to people seeking protection – a crucial part of integration for refugees.

Meeting their health needs is going to be critical

This ‘wraparound service’ will be crucial for refugees arriving from Ukraine, Ms Baxter says.

“This is quite a unique situation with Ukraine. People are coming over on the visa programme, they are using the immigration process – it’s different to when people come over through a resettlement programme.

“So people will have questions around ‘how long can I stay’ and ‘can my kind of visa get my family members over’.”

To provide such advice, the Refugee Council is ramping up the capacity of its ‘Info Line’ phone service. It’s also expecting increased demand for its therapeutic services and other medical assistance as another consequence of the Ukraine crisis.

“We’re expecting women and children, vulnerable people – so disabled people, older people. Meeting their health needs is going to be critical,” she says.

While the Refugee Council has been able to provide such assistance to other refugees throughout the pandemic using virtual online services, it doesn’t see a future without face-to-face support for the people it helps. Initiatives such as the Refugee Cricket Project, for example, use the sociability of the sport to break the ice and start meaningful conversations about their needs and concerns, from health to immigration.

How Vodafone volunteers are helping Ukrainian refugees

Vodafone Foundation, Vodafone’s charitable arm, has been co-ordinating relief efforts in countries bordering Ukraine.

Challenging times

The Ukraine crisis is presenting specific challenges for the charity.

Many refugees could end up in the UK’s existing Ukrainian communities in London and Manchester, but a significant number could be spread across the country, and this may make it trickier for the Refugee Council to provide assistance from their four core hubs in London, Hertfordshire, Yorkshire and Humberside, Ms Baxter warns.

Doing more

While it’s undoubtedly heartwarming to see the British public generously volunteering to house Ukrainian refugees, Ms Baxter emphasises the importance of safeguarding provisions, such as background checks on hosts, to ensure that Ukrainians are as well-protected from potential exploitation as possible.

It’s really important that we don’t forget the refugees from across the world who need the UK’s support and that all refugee lives matter

As ever, given that most of the Refugee Council’s services are fuelled by donations, she highlighted not only its need for donated funds but also its need for donated time.

The Refugee Council’s website has a constantly updated list of open volunteering positions – its 210 permanent staff are aided by almost as many volunteers. But those who can make regular, recurring commitments of time – rather than just one-off days here and there – are especially prized.

Given the public outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees, the Refugee Council is taking extra steps to reassure the other refugees it assists that they and their needs haven’t been forgotten. For Ms Baxter and the rest of the Refugee Council, they hope this upswell of sympathy and assistance for Ukrainian refugees will be extended to other displaced people, too.

“It’s really important that we don’t forget the refugees from across the world who need the UK’s support and that all refugee lives matter,” said Ms Baxter.

Vodafone has launched the Ukraine Crisis Tech Appeal, calling on the UK public and businesses to donate unwanted smartphones and tablets. Vodafone will add SIMs with six months’ free connectivity to each device, which the Refugee Council will then distribute to refugees so they can access vital support services and stay in touch with friends and family. This is in addition to Vodafone’s other initiatives to help Ukrainian refugees, whether they’re in the UK or at Ukraine’s borders.

To donate unwanted smartphones and tablets to The Vodafone Ukraine Crisis Tech Appeal: donate instore or apply online for a freepost envelope.

To donate to the DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal through the British Red Cross, people can give any amount using this tracked link or make a £10 donation by texting VODAFONE to 70141. Vodafone is match funding donations to £250,000.

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