Take five: "The biggest challenge for me was understanding the dimension of peace from the perspective of the risk of war"
Jana Costachi, State Secretary of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, has extensive experience at the national and international level as a public official and leader of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and networks focused on social policies, migration regulation, promotion of equal opportunities, etc. Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, she has been actively involved in managing the flow of refugees into Moldova and providing a prompt response to their needs. Since UN Women, through its mandate, promotes the “Women, Peace and Security” Agenda and encourages women’s participation in decision-making processes, we spoke to Jana Costachi on the International Day of Peace about her experience supporting refugees and peacekeeping processes.
We know from experience that women's participation makes crisis response and recovery more effective, inclusive and sustainable. It is very important that they are involved in all decisions related to responding to the refugee crisis and peace, that they are seen as active promoters of change. In this regard, how can we encourage and especially increase the involvement of women in decision-making processes, peacekeeping, diplomacy and humanitarian efforts?
A woman who is empowered with the ability to make decisions is very often in a process of reflection—whether she accepts being part of this exercise or not. In this context, women can be in several situations: women who have the capacity to be involved in decision-making processes but have not yet decided to do so; women who are already involved in decision-making; and women who are there, actively involved, but are thinking of disengaging. It is very important to have by their side someone who can help these capable and willing women become part of a decision-making process and motivate them by creating opportunities.
We can encourage women by setting our own example, by maintaining a dialogue and creating bridges of communication between the woman who has the capacity to make a decision and the beneficiaries who need her decision. These bridges are usually made by intermediary organisations, such as NGOs or the international community. You were involved in managing the humanitarian crisis on the first day of the war.
Looking back, what are the biggest challenges you've faced and what achievements are you most proud of?
The biggest challenge for me was understanding the dimension of peace from the perspective of the risk of war. Until February 24, the discussion of peace for me was a realization, a fact that was never put under threat and not an aspiration. We had to learn things on the fly that we didn't know. And the biggest challenge in a crisis situation is that it critically, almost inhumanely, shortens the time you have to make a decision. It was also essential to understand how I, as a person in a decision-making position, could manage to be empathetic enough, for both myself and my colleagues.
Similarly, we had to adjust everything we were implementing in a matter of hours, depending on the situation we were seeing at the moment, both at the border and in the territory of Moldova. We, as representatives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and I, as a person responsible for everything related to the border and migration, were aware that we had a huge responsibility to manage things in a way that enabled any person seeking refuge from the plague of war to have immediate and unconditional access to the territory of Moldova, including to a safe shelter. Moreover, it was necessary to identify all kinds of shortcuts. In this respect, we have used the power of Moldova’s Commission for Emergency Situations to carry out a series of exemptions from the existing regulatory framework. This allowed us not to base access to peace on the presence or lack of formal acts.
Last but not least, it was crucial that we identified the needs and profiles of people fleeing the war. This is how the Crisis Center in Palanca was created — a place where we met with interdisciplinary teams of specialists who helped us identify the immediate needs of the beneficiaries.
From an institutional point of view, the biggest challenge was dealing with a flow of people that we never imagined could be so big. I can tell you that I intuitively traveled to Palanca five days before the start of the war, trying to visualize what that area would look like if there was an increased influx of refugees, which, at that time, we estimated would be 5,000 people, not up to 500,000.
Of course, there are also many things that I am proud of. First of all, the team we worked with and our ability to adjust, being a ministry of force. I am proud of my colleagues’ abilities to think very creatively and come up with seemingly simple but essential solutions. For example, I entered the Crisis Center in Palanca on the second day of the war and during thathour I was there, all the refugees were constantly asking for my phone so that they could send messages to their families who remained in Ukraine. We acted immediately and, together with the director of the Crisis Center, got in touch with a mobile operator to install a Wi-Fi network by that same evening. There are a lot of details that you can't predict. I'm proud of our team and the way we've handled the situations, having an extremely small number of people, but managing to open our hearts and prove that in the police, empathy is a value and not an abstract notion.
Many women have been involved in helping and supporting refugees. What is the added value that women from law enforcement bodies have?
It turns out that any crisis or disaster that immediately affects people's quality of life requires a response that policewomen handle just as well as men—or perhaps even better. Why? Because usually the victims or people who suffer the most are mothers, sisters, daughters, children. And a woman can understand their immediate feelings and needs much better. It is a natural pattern, not only from the perspective of gender equality theories but also from the perspective of identifying human needs with greater precision during times of crisis.
It seems extraordinary to me what I was able to discover and offer as a woman, together with the colleagues with whom I’ve worked and continue to work in the segment represented by a ministry of force.
The international community, state authorities, civil society organisations and local communities are actively involved in helping refugees. In view of the fact that the majority of refugees are women and children, could you share with us, based on your experience of interaction with them, how they feel in Moldova?
In the context of the refugee crisis, the Ministry of Internal Affairs had the responsibility to ensure the continuous flow of refugees, women and children into Moldova as well as their access to the territory. This meant thinking about very short-term solutions, such as providing blankets at night when it was snowing outside, or hot tea, which our police officers brought from the Palanca Center until the international organisations started to arrive. It also meant creating children's game rooms at the border crossing point or giving mothers access to hygienic packages and diapers for their children. We have been able to secure so many human things at the border.
During this time, we have also kept peace, security and public order under control in Moldova’s territory. In this context, we had to figure out how to manage two situations that were unknown to us until then. The first situation related to the fact that a large portion of the women, children and refugees chose Moldova for only a short-term stay. We therefore had to respond to their needs and create the so-called resettlement system. One of them started right in Palanca and another was in Ungheni.
I also appreciated and encouraged the way the community mobilised and became part of the process. As a result, we were able to actively facilitate access for hundreds of cars to pick up families with children from border crossings.
There is no justification for war; instead, it is necessary to promote peace now more than ever. What would be needed to strengthen the response to the refugee crisis and make it truly inclusive, and how can we help promote resilience and sustainable peace?
My conviction is that in Moldova, refugees from Ukraine must be encouraged not to feel on the margins of society. Our task is to think of short-term, immediate assistance packages as well as opportunities for social integration through which refugees can learn the language, culture and apply their skills in practice. We cannot invite women from Ukraine to sit here as if in an enclave and postpone their lives. Life must be lived. That is why the programmes that we want to implement are aimed at actively integrating refugees into Moldovan society.
And in order to promote peace, it is absolutely necessary to immediately condemn, unequivocally and without any restraint, the aggression that is gaining increasing dimensions, as the situation at the border of our country has shown. I believe we must signal that we do not tolerate, accept or consider any manifestation of violence as normal conduct.