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How UK policing is helping the refugee crisis in war-torn Ukraine

UK policing is helping source aid for Ukraine and must start preparing for refugees, an eye-witness tells Police Oracle.

UK policing is coordinating a major humanitarian response to the Ukrainian crisis.

So far charities, forces, Fed reps plus individual officers and staff have been organising fundraising events or sourcing everything from medical supplies to sleeping bags.

UK volunteers have joined the relief effort at arrival centres at the border with Poland.

Among those to respond is Insp David Hamilton, Chair of the Scottish Police Federation who has given Police Oracle a first-hand account of what he witnessed during a fact-finding mission on behalf of a charity.

A former aid worker who drove food trucks during the Bosnian war, he recently spent three days at a refugee centre.

He warns policing’s leaders to plan a response so they are ready for the arrival of traumatised refugees who have survived atrocities.

Mr Hamilton is a board member for Edinburgh Direct Aid which started in the 1990s to assist in the relief effort as war engulfed the former Yugoslavia and today runs projects supporting Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

The charity has now begun work to fit out shelters and supply aid to East Ukraine. It has also joined the international effort to improve conditions in the refugee corridors.

He used two days leave to fly with colleagues to Poland and then make a three-hour drive along a motorway to the border refugee reception centre in Przemysl, located in the south of the country.

He told Police Oracle: “Our objective was to try and assess what people needed and, importantly, what they didn’t need.”

Blue Light responders across Europe have been part of the relief effort donating fire engines, ambulances and more. And he revealed members of other UK policing charities are also at the border.

“I’m not the only one to get involved; David Pond of Police Care is sleeping on the platform of Przemysl Station. He’s been helping to run a mother and baby unit.”

The main reception point on the outskirts of the city includes a former supermarket. Elsewhere, sports centres and railway stations are also being put to use.

Arrivals who have family or friends to go to in Europe are taken from the border by bus and then to shop units in a shopping centre that corresponded to countries they want to travel to. They are then matched to a bus or a volunteer driver.  From there, the volunteer drivers transport them across Europe.

Mr Hamilton says: “These aren’t the traditional refugee camps; this is a transport and logistics operation. It’s just a constant flow. You don’t see people sleeping on the street. They just keep going.”

He described the results of harrowing decisions families have had to make in response to the Russian invasion.

“It was just women and children. There weren’t many old people. People said they’d agreed to take the children to safety ‘and the rest of us will fight’. There were not even many single women. One told me in a matter of fact way ‘my husband is staying back to fight but that’s what we should do.’”

He adds: “There weren’t a lot of tears. People weren’t howling and wailing. There was a very dignified and sombre mood. There was a sense of people just getting on and doing this.”

Volunteers are working in freezing conditions, he says. “There’s big queues. It’s not a few hours then back to a hotel. It was cold; minus 10 degrees at night. It was doing things like keeping pizza ovens going and making tea and coffee. That’s just to feed people at the border crossing.”

Organising donations from around the world is also a vital task,

Mr Hamilton explains: “You don’t put piles of clothes out and tell people to help themselves. That’s not right. Forcing people to take something out of a box is one of the most degrading things you can ask someone to do. These people are us.”

Despite the challenging conditions, there were moments that lifted the grim mood: “The language barrier is a bit of an issue. We were trying to learn a bit of Polish and a bit of Ukrainian. The reality is you get by on gestures and signals.

“I felt like Officer Crabtree out of ‘Allo ‘Allo. I was trying to pronounce the Ukrainian word for soup – sup - in a Scottish accent. People were laughing at my pronunciation. Even in the midst of the chaos and trauma of a border, people were laughing at that. It humanises people.”

The work of the big charities and international organisations like the Red Cross have reached public awareness through the media and appeals for money.

But the part of the operation that hasn’t got coverage is how international police forces are also working together to manage the safe flow of refugees across Europe.

Mr Hamilton said: “The Polish Police have been very good; there’s plenty of emergency services in place. The work is focused on getting a flow running through.”

He warns UK forces will also need to start planning for people trafficking gangs targeting new arrivals in the UK.

“The opportunity for traffickers to exploit people is huge,” he told Police Oracle.

“We need to start working on the public protection plans to be ready for this because there are criminals who will already be onto this.”

He adds; “Currently there’s no strategic framework in place. I’m working with the Scottish government to connect people that I’ve met.”

David Hamilton says work will need to be done to move forward the narrative around asylum seekers.

He tells Police Oracle: “Refugees are here because they have to be, not because they chose to be. They need that support.”

His advice to officers when they meet refugees is: “Be supportive. The opportunity to support people coming through is huge. What you get back is far more than you put in. There’s a guy in Sweden who’s in charge of the border police there, a commander. He tells his younger cops when they take in Syrian refugees ‘these are tomorrow’s police officers’. It’s a brilliant example in how to set the tone.”

He puts the plight of the new arrivals in context: “If someone said to me you need to leave the UK right now, where would I go in Europe if I didn’t know anyone? I’ve absolutely no idea.”

For officers and staff thinking of getting involved in the relief effort, he has simple advice: “If you can go, go. The astonishing thing was that the total bill was £160 for three people.”

He adds: “Don’t take things unless there’s an identified need. You can buy anything in Poland that you can buy here, so why pay the tax and transport costs? So just send money.”

Perhaps the most haunting part of what is happening is how similar the circumstances are to the wars that engulfed the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Mr Hamilton was an aid worker during the Bosnian war who drove lorries loaded with food into Sarajevo under fire. Today, he is a member of Remembering Srebrenica Scotland which is dedicated to ensuring the story of those atrocities is not forgotten.

He tells Police Oracle: “I was in Tuzla where the women and children were bused out before the genocide. Seeing all these women and children getting on buses, I just thought ‘I’ve seen this before’. It’s different in one way because people are staying behind to fight for something but there are many similarities.

“I’ve been taking delegations out to Bosnia and talking about my experiences for the war. We have an education project to tell them about the history and events. It’s come back full circle. It’s still people being displaced from their land. I never thought I’d see this again; the type of atrocities, the violence we’re seeing. It’s chilling.”

With up to 10 million people displaced from their homes – and no end to the violence in sight - Mr Hamilton warns that what has until now been an improvised response will have to scale up.  

“If we get to a point where camps are established, that’s another phase. This is only the end of the first phase of what is a very real crisis. There’s a million people waiting to get trains from Kyiv alone,” he says.

“And they will have seen things or been injured. The attack on the army base close to the border happened while we were there. People heard the explosions because it wasn’t very far away. One of the injured had been brought to where we were by the Red Cross. He’d lost two friends at the base,” he says.

To find out more about Edinburgh Direct Aid’s fundraising efforts, go HERE

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