Conference Journal RE:Think bridges- Part II

The Conference  „RE:Think bridges”, organized in January by FONPC, SERA România, ICVA, Eurochild and CARE France, brought together experts with various roles in the European humanitarian response to refugees. 

The debate of public policies and funding that enabled or hindered the humanitarian assistance for refugees took place in an expert panel moderated by Ionuț Sibian, Executive Director of FDSC, the Foundation for the Development of the Civil Society. Present in the panel were representatives of entities that financed assistance programs for refugees (The Embassy of Norway in Romania, the World Bank and European Program for Integration and Migration (EPIM) – an initiative of 25 private foundations), as well as representatives of international organizations that play an intermediary and coordination role of international assistance channeled for national actors – the UN agencies for refugees (UNHCR) and children (UNICEF), and members of international NGOs represented by CARE International. 

Experts discussed how assistance offered to refugees should be localized, with decision making being decentralized towards target beneficiary groups and civil society organizations in the host country, who can contextualize much better the assistance to the specific needs in each environment. All speakers highlighted the systemic and mentality shift that this approach requires, compared to the traditional ways of delivering humanitarian assistance. 

Masha Volynsky, European Program for Integration and Migration (EPIM), showed how trust in partners that work at grass roots level was essential in ensuring a fast response to this crisis. “For EPIM, the most important thing was to listen, to see what the needs were and not just to respond to the needs, but really support the empowerment of migrants and refugees. Due to this aspect, the future will look different for us and we would like to maintain this momentum and to capitalize this experience gained, so we can create a truly inclusive community.”

The World Bank offered financial and technical support to host governments, including in Romania.   Victor Sulla, Task Team Leader, Senior Social Protection Economist, Social Protection & Jobs, World Bank said financial support was directed towards immediate needs of refugees, to ensure Romania was able to provide emergency assistance to refugees, while technical support was directed towards the Ministry of Labor and Education to support the measures adopted by Romania to support the integration of Ukrainian refugees in the education system. “The World Bank team was part of the national level coordination mechanisms to analyze the way the labor market should respond to refugees. We have a pilot project in Cluj, in which we explore ways in which the local service providers AJOFM in supporting the integration of refugees on the labor market”. 

Kerstin Agneta Wahlberg, EEA and Norway Grants Counsellor,  Royal Norwegian Embassy in Bucharest: „We realized maybe for the first time the extreme importance of civil society, because its members were they ones that were the first responders in the early days, they mobilized themselves and formed centers of collective assistance. These institutions couldn’t have taken place if these civil society organizations were not there, if they were not already existing and functioning, knowing the communities they were serving already. Strengthening civil society is not something that should be done during a conflict, but a priority we should always have.”

Jean-Benoit (JB) Manhes, Senior Emergency Coordinator, UNICEF Romania, talked about the fact that advocacy work is not sufficient to have an impact in the lives of children.  „It is too simple to offer generalities such as “children should receive assistance” or “children are the most vulnerable”. We need to go beyond mere statements and see what are the differences between principles and reality for each particular child.  Children are resilient, but they need stability, concrete measures, and a long term vision. I believe the central government and public authorities have a key role to play, both at national and local level, but civil society should play a critical role as well.”

Jean Saslawsky, Director for Program Operations, CARE France, talked about how his organization had to adapt its ways of working in the past two years: The approach to the Ukraine crisis was special for CARE, because we did something without precedent for us, namely we chose to support local NGOs and to work through partners in Romania and Moldova that enabled local efforts. This approach had to be reflected in the way we do fundraising for this crisis, having to explain to donors that we are raising funds to support civil society organizations that offer services to refugees. Localization is a method CARE wishes to use in the future in other international crisis, because supporting local NGOs is the most efficient response approach. 

Pablo Zapata, Head of UNHCR Romania  spoke about the initial challenge this crisis brought, namely the geographical fragmentation of the NGOs scope of interventions: „The Ukraine crisis was special and particular in many ways: one of the aspects was that we learnt how to work together from experience, because at the beginning there were many funds, but there was little clarity regarding the main needs of refugees and host communities. We had local authorities and civil society organizations ready to get involved. In the beginning it was difficult to select partners, because NGOs were already engaged by others. It was difficult to sustain a rapid growth of complexity of issues they were addressing and their organizational capacity. We had to use different NGOs in different parts of the country to have a national coverage of different sectors – if we needed an immediate intervention in gender based violence issues, for example, we had to find local organizations that could respond in certain areas. We have different actors in different parts of the country offering similar services. The UNHCR budget for 2022 shows that national organizations received a a bigger budget that international organizations – 5.3 million  Euros compared to 3.1 millions. In 2023, the percentage was even bigger – 8.5 million Euros for national organizations, and 2.9 millions for international ones. In 2024 we’ll be looking at 4.1 millions for national NGOs and 163.000 for international NGOs.  these figures speak to the maturity of the assistance programs and about the capacity and expertise to deliver the necessary services.” 

Public policies and decision makers

The panel dedicated to public policies and decision makers included representatives of the Presidential Administration, the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, the National Authority for Child Protection and Adoption, Ministry of Investments and European Projects, Ministry of Education, as well as representatives of the European Commission and European Parliament, the Embassies of Ukraine and Republic of Moldova. 

Cătălina Galer, State Advisor in the Presidential Administration, referred to the fact that we are going through an unprecedented crisis because of the war in Ukraine at the borders of Romania, and that we were part of “a collaboration without precedent between civil society and Government authorities. It is important to acknowledge the good things we achieved together. I am glad we can share good practices and learn from mistakes so we can continue the work. Only together  we can ensure an effective use of resources. My invitation for all present is that we continue collaborating, networking and learning from each other.” 

Minister of Education, Ligia Deca, pointed out the diplomatic progress achieved in aligning the educational systems to recognize the Ukrainian diplomas and mapping out the differences and similarities and areas for alignment among the two different school curricula. “Integrating a child that needs cultural and linguistic immersion is a new lesson for Romania. We made progress in teaching Romanian as a second language, this being a very important issue because many young people and professionals come to our country and we need to become better at integrating them. 

Victoria Stoiciu, State Advisor in the Chancellery of the Prime Minister, talked about the flexibility of non-governmental organizations, which enabled them to respond in an efficient way to the needs of refugees:  „We are used to talk about the lack of efficiency of the Government, but in this case we can say the response of the Government was quite good. NGOs piloted the Educational Hubs – a very important initiative that can be leveraged even when the war in Ukraine ends. They offer useful services for any vulnerable child in Romania. The civil society organizations have the grass-roots level experience that is essential in creating public policies for the integration of migrants and refugees, and we tried to take into account all recommendations received from the field. Finding the most efficient solutions for displaced people from Ukraine, we find long term solutions for all citizens of Romania, growing the capacity of educational services and those aimed at the integration on the labor market”. 

Rares-Petru Achiriloaie, president of ANPDCA, talked about the collaboration with the civil society and about the importance of understanding that we are still in the middle of a crisis and the needs of children arriving in Romania remain acute. „What can be done moving forward? Our support must continue, although there are multiple crises happening at the same time globally. We want to extend our congratulations to all those present because they chose not to turn a blind eye and chose to provide assistance. ANPDCA was one of the institutions who was involved from the beginning of the crisis. Together with our partners at FONPC, SERA and UNICEF, we created the Primero platform that centralized data about all children that entered Romania through the blue dots. We have over 33.000 children registered through the platform, approximately 7500 being unaccompanied. We trained professionals in centers to better work with children, identifying abuse at early stages, offering counseling and ensuring prevention of human trafficking.”

Bogdan Eduard Simcea, State Advisor in the Ministry of Investments and European Projects, talked about the three appeals, with a total value of 500 million EUROs, and about the Educational, Labor Market and Inclusion and Social Dignity programs which have a schedule launch for the first trimester of this year, and which can also cover the needs of refugees in terms of integration on the labor market, professional development, actions for vulnerable groups, including refugees, through the “rural development” priority – psychosocial support for children, social services and support to vulnerable groups, including migrants.

Aslak Solumsmoen, representative of the UNHCR Regional Bureau, pointed to “the remarkable acts of solidarity and generosity that took place in the past two years in communities that opened their hearts and homes and demonstrated a remarkable spirit of humanity.  This solidarity must be sustained now that we are approaching the third year of conflict. The approach should be a collective response and collaboration that reaches beyond this war. As we come close to the end date of the Temporary Protection in Europe, we need to think of the next steps. The aim of refugees is to return home when it will be safe to do so. Until then, we must cover the needs for shelter, health and integration on the labor market. We must continue to support access to language courses and professional development ones. Identifying most vulnerable groups remains a priority.”

Ana-Maria Coscotin, Team Leader, DG Employment, European Commission, said that the EU has gradually transitioned from the immediate response to the aggression war in Ukraine to long term support of the country and the host countries receiving Ukrainian refugees fleeing war.  „This would not have been possible without the support of the Member States, the host communities, and the immense solidarity of all volunteers. The temporary protection directive gives refugees access to essential health, housing, education services and labor market access. But the success of integration efforts needs more than a legal framework. Access to education and cold protection are a priority for the European Commission. The National Plan of Action for the implementation of the Child Guarantee is essential for ensuring social services for migrant and refugee children”.

Ihor Prokopchuk, Ambassador of Ukraine in Romania, commenced his speech with thanks: „I would like to express my deep gratitude to each and everyone of you and for all activities done for the Ukrainian people”. His Excellency pointed out that the relationship between Romania and Ukraine went through a significant transformation that involved high level strategic partnerships, highlighting the importance of the Educational Hubs as an example of bilateral cooperation among  Governments, civil society organizations and international donors. 

Victor Negrescu, Member of the European Parliament, wanted to draw attention to “the necessity of having a much more coherent and more integrated response to the way we protect children at European level. Last year we had more than 44 million that were forced to leave their homes due to the conflict. Nearly 1 in 3 children in the EU come from vulnerable groups. The consequences of this data? Problems with school and education access, as well as appropriate documentation. In many of my discussions with civil society representatives I receive the following question: Do we have sufficient resources to continue the programs for Ukrainian children? We have the necessary mechanisms, expertise and we can estimate the costs involved. At EU level, in the Commission for budgets, we seek to identify supplementary financing solutions – through the Child Guarantee, but also through other solutions. NGOs in Romania have mobilized to support children from Ukraine, but for this we need to have the necessary financial resources. We need predictability with the European mechanisms.   

Dragos Pîslaru, Member of the European Parliament: „As the president of the Labor and Social Affairs Commission, I was directly involved in the process through which the EU Child Guarantee for Children was adopted. There are still discrepancies in the way we treat problems of migration and asylum requests. There is a siloed policy from an institutional perspective – justice and internal affairs; social affairs. Those forced to leave their homes due to the conflict have been treated as European citizens, based on the social protection system. It is vital that we don’t focus on finding temporary solutions to providing assistance for refugees, but instead aim to strengthen the European social protection system. The EU Child Guarantee offers a favorable framework for all categories of children. We should be able to use the entire system of social integration at European level to have an intersectionality approach. It is important to understand there are many children that suffer from varied disabilities. The discrimination of Roma children is still very high. We must go beyond the current silos because this can no longer be the sole responsibility of the Internal Affairs Ministries. There is an issue of ensuring the necessary resources to support the efforts of civil society organizations and the costs of social integration. We must rethink the way we look at social investments. The good practices coming from civil society actions are not adopted to ensure sustainability. A project based approach is not seen as an investment. Europe needs to put on the table the concept of social investments. It is vital that we understand that we need to treat these measures as investments, not as a separate category for other citizens”.      

Victor Chirilă, Ambassador of the Republic of Moldova in Romania talked about how Moldova was able to receive over 1 million Ukrainian refugees, despite having the smallest European economy. “This is the highest number of refugees received by any country in the world, if you consider the percentage of refugees per capita. The Ukraine crisis triggered a series of energy and economic crises, with the inflation exceeding 30 per cent. Citizens have remained in solidarity with the Ukraine cause and with the values Ukraine fights for. These values are the bedrock we want to build a modern state and ve part of the European Union. The civil society in Moldova acted as true members of the EU. Representatives of the civil society were the first to welcome refugees at the border crossing points. They offered an example worth following for other Member States, who were maybe less opened in the beginning. We had the support of key donors, UN agencies (UNHCR and others), that worked alongside our efforts from the first weeks. They helped us establish an institutional coordination system. We created those green corridors that continue to function to facilitate the transit of refugees towards other states they want to travel to. In the Transnistria Region, we have over 8000 refugees that received assistance due to the International Organizations. We offer them legal, informational and resources through the support of civil society organizations”.  

The conference  RE:think bridges is part of the „Help to Help Ukraine”, a project funded by CARE – a global confederation that fights poverty and social injustice for over 75 years, and is coordinated and implemented at national level by SERA Romania Foundation, with the support of CARE France and FONPC (the Federation of NGOs for Children)