International Committee of the Red Cross Warns Ukraine War Will Strain Humanitarian and Health Resources
ICRC members prepare to deliver emergency supplies in Ukraine

Just as members of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in the besieged Ukrainian city of Mariupol were released on Tuesday  by Russian forces, the humanitarian organisation warned that its resources are going to be strained in the coming months as it deals with the crisis in that country.

Dr Micaela Serafini, ICRC’s head of health, told Health Policy Watch that “until now we had reserves, but these are expected to be stretched too thin in the coming months. I think we will start to see the impact Ukraine will have on other emergencies we are trying to deal with, such as in Afghanistan or Myanmar.”

Meanwhile, the ICRC is juggling a range of other related new and old challenges, from the impact of climate change and planetary health on humanitarian crises to the challenge of assisting populations experiencing food insecurity as a result of war. 

These are all topics that ICRC will be addressing at the Geneva Health Forum, which takes place 3-5 May. This year’s forum will host six ICRC speakers, including a keynote address by ICRC president, Peter Maurer, and sessions ranging from Planetary Health, to Innovation in the humanitarian context.  

Serafini, an Argentinian-trained medical doctor, has been working in the humanitarian sector for 15 years. Before joining the Red Cross in January 2021, she served as medical director for Médecins Sans Frontieres (MSF). Her aim has been to influence international health policies to the benefit the most vulnerable patients and communities. 

In conflict zones, everyone suffers, but the weakest populations tend to suffer the most, she explained.

The main challenge is access

The ICRC health division was formed under the terms of the four treaties of the Geneva Conventions, and particuarly the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949, as well as related protocols, which set out international legal standards for humanitarian treatment of combatants and civilians in war zones, Serafini explained. Aside from providing care, the organization strives for open dialogue with all parties in conflicts to ensure the protection of civilians and healthcare personnel, including their safe passage through conflict zones. It also strives to ensure that prisoners of war are given access to healthcare and are treated with dignity.

The organization has been active in Ukraine since 2014, but has scaled up its activities since the 24 February invasion. 

“I am worried about our employees in Ukraine,” Serafini admitted during a recent call, saying that the main challenge in Ukraine has been “access.”

“The security aspects make us go slowly, and it is sometimes impossible to get to that specific last line where most of the needs are,” Serafini said. “While we managed to get close to the frontline, we are not really close enough to those who are trapped in Mariupol, for example, or sometimes even parts of Kyiv.”

The ICRC is operating a hotline in Ukraine where people can call and get virtual help. 

Part of the challenge is that humanitarian space has reduced with time and health structures and health staff have become more of a target than they were before, she explained, noting that even if healthcare workers are given access to vulnerable people, they are not necessarily accepted or protected. 

“There are incidents in places that should be protected by international law and they are not protected anymore… Respect for international law is not as present as it was before. Of course, this makes the need for ICRC more important and present.”

Three-phase emergency response

An emergency has three phases, she said. The first is coming up with “bulk support” when the needs are still unclear, so you are just trying to help with whatever you can. The second phase is where you “fine tune the need” because you understand better, and the third phase is when you consolidate those needs.

“We are still in the first phase,” Serafini said. “Today, it is difficult to say if we had an impact or not.”

See the full GHF 2022 programme. Register here: Rates are tiered and early-bird fees range from CHF 300-100 for the in-person event, and CHF 200-70 for digital participation. Daily rates are also available.

This is part of a Health Policy Watch series of stories on feature themes at the 2022 Geneva Health Forum.


Image Credits: ICRC.

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