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Security Contractors and Aid Organizations Ramp-Up Ukrainian Evacuations

Calls come in at all times of the day and wheels are set in motion to move to get clients out of harm’s way. But in a conflict zone, that is not always possible, even for some of the largest security contractors in the world.

“We’ve had requests for clients to be evacuated from places that are directly in the area of Russian and Ukrainian troops, which is not possible,” says Julian Moro, senior vice president of security services at International SOS. “But that does not mean we say no.”

Instead, the company moves to provide advice on how to mitigate risks and prepare to take advantage of a window in time when they can be evacuated to safety. It’s a practice that involves balancing personal safety, emotional well-being, and mental stamina—especially as the Russian invasion of Ukraine stretches into the fourth week and access to food, medicine, and water becomes more challenging for certain parts of Ukraine.

“The people that are now needing assistance don’t have as much access to medical care, food, water, and medicines,” Moro adds. “They are in worse shape than the people two weeks ago we were able to evacuate.”

Mass Displacement

More than 3 million Ukrainians have left the country, with approximately 1.85 million displaced within the nation of 44 million. As Russian shelling and supply chain challenges continue in Ukraine, officials are asking for more assistance in evacuating civilians from combat zones.

Prime Minister of Ukraine Denys Shmyhal met with President of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Peter Maurer on Thursday to discussing the urgent situation that many civilians are facing due to lack of food, medicine, water, and other critical goods.

One of the most dire situations right now is in Mariupol, a seaport city of 430,000 people that is encircled by Russian troops and has been experiencing near constant shelling. Tens of thousands of people have managed to flee the city, but thousands more remain trapped without electricity, water, and food. On Wednesday, Russian air strikes hit a theater in Mariupol where civilians were taking shelter, hiding in the theater's basement bomb shelter. Rescuers continue to search through the rubble to locate survivors, according to the Associated Press—which has the only foreign correspondents still reporting in the city. 

“A number of cities blocked by Russian troops, including Mariupol, are in a critical situation,” Shmyhal said in a statement after meeting with the ICRC. “The actions of the aggressor state are a crime of genocide against the Ukrainian people.” 

Shmyhal and the Ukrainian government have called for the creation of humanitarian corridors to allow individuals to leave combat zones. Maurer said that the ICRC is committed to aiding civilians seeking safety. He also issued a statement requesting five steps be taken to respect international humanitarian law and limit civilian suffering: 

  1. Concrete agreements to provide safe passage out of areas of violence, including Mariupol.

  2. Allowing humanitarian aid in to areas of violence.

  3. Ensuring civilians are protected, regardless of if they are in a humanitarian corridor.

  4. Sparing civilian infrastructure from attacks.

  5. Treating prisoners of war and detained civilians with dignity.

Maurer also said that the ICRC is “massively scaling up” its response to the conflict. “Just this week over 200 tons of relief supplies—medical material, thousands of blankets, kitchen sets, tarpaulins arrived in the country. We have deployed dozens of additional staff to the region, among them medical workers, weapon contamination specialists, engineers, logisticians, and others who can make an immediate difference to people in need.”

On the Ground

Some of those individuals making an immediate difference are security contractors, who have worked to evacuate thousands of their clients in the lead-up to and following the beginning of the war. 

As the rhetoric heated up and Russia began advancing troops towards Ukraine’s borders, International SOS sent an advance team into Ukraine on 26 January to assess cities, routes, checkpoints, and build up a network of drivers should clients need to be evacuated. Then, on 12 February, the company issued a warning to clients to consider leaving the country—roughly two weeks before the invasion.

“That gave our clients a significant window to reduce their population, and highlighted what security measures they would have in place,” Moro says, adding that this did not eliminate exposure clients were facing.

Since then, International SOS has been conducting two to three evacuations per day—many of which have become increasingly complicated as the threat landscape has evolved and widespread indirect fire is impacting civilians, Moro adds.

If a situation is too dangerous—such as evacuating someone from a direct conflict zone—the company provides advice on how to reduce personal risk until an evacuation can be attempted. For missions that are possible, however, Moro says they conduct a full risk assessment with the client, going over threats to vehicles, reviewing contingencies, and ensuring that clients are prepared to evacuate in roughly 30 minutes. For instance, they communicate that clients should have bags they can carry with enough food, water, and medicines to last at least 48 hours.

Clients also need to be clear about any medical or ability challenges they may have that the company will need to assist with. In an evacuation southwest of Kyiv, for example, Moro says that a driver went to pick up two individuals—including an elderly man who required a wheelchair. One thing that had not been communicated, however, was that the man was also blind and suffered from severe motion sickness.

Fortunately, the company had planned for a variety of contingencies and had access to a hotel where everyone could spend the night before heading to Lviv and to the Polish border. The company was also able to negotiate to get the driver—a man in the conscription age range for Ukraine—to drive into the border area between Ukraine and Poland to meet an ambulance that transferred the older passenger to a hospital in Krakow.

Clients should also have identification documentation with them when they plan to leave, and bring appropriate supplies to care for any children or pets that are traveling with them.

Taking appropriate precautions for bringing a pet with them—including leashes and restraints—is important as many of the evacuations International SOS is conducting do include animals. In some instances, when the evacuation team has stopped for a comfort break, scared or nervous pets run away from their owners and refuse to come back.

In a few instances where evacuating an adult with a child and a pet, “the pet has escaped and we have had to call the client and say, ‘Speak with your employee and dependent because they are refusing to leave until we find those pets,’” Moro says.

Another aspect of evacuations that the company reviews is whether individuals are able to drive themselves or will need to be picked up and escorted to safety—in many cases to the Polish border. In three different evacuations planned for this week, Moro says each will require a different amount of assistance on the ground.

The first group is not in a high-risk area—as of Security Management's press time—and has access to its own vehicles, so they are planning to drive to the border and will be met with a reception team to help move them to their next location.

The second group is more challenging, Moro says, and will require a security detail to transfer them to the border. “We’re doing that evacuation; they will walk across the border and register, and then we will pick them up again on the other side,” he adds.

The third group had made plans to leave, but then a member of the party started to feel unwell. After consulting with the company’s medical group, Moro says, the unwell individual was diagnosed with chickenpox—requiring the group to remain in place until it’s safer to move.

Situations like this are when the company takes on more of a risk mitigation and advice role, providing guidance on how to “stay alive in some pretty terrible circumstances,” he says. These are often people with no military or police training, so the company shares advice on everything from shelter locations, taking cover, and what to do to maintain their health.

This includes setting up emotional support hotlines that individuals can call in to. Moro says International SOS has set these up for a number of clients—in Ukrainian, Russian, and other languages—to act as a crisis line for emotional support and mental health aid.

“This is set up for the people directly impacted,” Moro says. “But we also recognize the strain this is placing on managers—it’s extremely distressing for them outside of Ukraine as they are forced to wait, too.”

On the Outside

For those not directly impacted by the war, there are still options to assist those in need—including by donating funds to on the ground efforts. The Polish city of Rzeszow has become one of the main humanitarian aid hubs for Ukraine, providing food, blankets, solar lamps, clothing, mattresses, jerry cans, and sheeting, according to the Associated Press (AP).

“What we have been doing is bringing more people into the country, bringing more assistance into the country, working with partners to make sure that we can work effectively, to do what we can to help,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, a UNHCR spokesman who spoke to the AP about the warehouse the UN is running in Rzeszow.

Another key way for individuals to provide support to Ukrainians is to send money to aid organizations, says Laura Hoffner, executive vice president, risk solutions, Concentric, which is helping with evacuations through its charity organization—the 188 Foundation.

During the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, Concentric created the 188 Foundation to charter a plane and evacuate 361—more than the originally planned 188—Afghans out of the country. Hoffner says that the 188 Foundation is back to work, this time focused on aiding evacuations of individuals out of Ukraine.

For instance, Hoffner adds that Concentric clients in Norway reached out for support after learning that their surrogate baby was in Ukraine following the Russian invasion. Concentric worked with its source network to get the baby to safety and its parents, just one example of the 16 different operations it has helped conduct so far.

The company is also providing financial support, which can be one of the best ways for individuals to help with evacuations and getting emergency supplies to Ukrainians.

“Money is the main thing people can assist with,” Hoffner says. “What we could do with $3,000 originally…now everyone is charging more because it’s become more dangerous. Based on the area, it could run up to $36,000 a head (for an evacuation).”

Security Management’s publisher, ASIS International, has issued a statement on the war and provided a list of reputable organizations assisting those impacted. Information on how to make a donation is available via the statement here.