Ukraine risks becoming ‘Europe’s largest refugee crisis of the century’, UNHCR warns

Refugees fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine receive meals at a temporary camp in Przemysl, Poland, on 28 February, 2022. (Credit: Keystone/MAXPPP)

Around 660,000 refugees have fled Ukraine since Russia launched its attack on Ukraine, the UN refugee agency said Tuesday, warning that the war could become “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century”.

As the violence and heavy bombardment by Russian military forces entered its sixth day, the lines of cars, buses, and queues of people seeking refuge by foot have been growing longer at the borders of Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia – and Russia.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said field staff reported “miles of queues” at the Polish border, with those who crossed the border saying that they had been waiting up to 60 hours.

“Most arrivals are women and children from all parts of Ukraine. Temperatures are freezing and many have reported spending days on the road waiting to cross,” Shabia Mantoo, a UNHCR spokesperson, told journalists in Geneva.

Read more: Escalation of war in Ukraine could drive four million refugees

Speaking from Ukraine’s most westerly city of Lviv, which has become a refuge for thousands of people en route to Poland, James Elder, a spokesperson for UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), said the situation in the country was “getting worse by the minute”.

“We are receiving reports of hospitals, schools, water and sanitation facilities, and orphanages under fire. Explosive weapons in populated areas and explosive remnants of war are a real and present danger to the children of Ukraine.”

At least 102 civilians have been killed, including children, and 304 injured at midnight on 27 February, according to figures confirmed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), with the real numbers feared to be much higher.

UN seeks $1.7bn for Ukraine aid

Humanitarian organisations have warned that fuel, cash, and medical supplies are rapidly diminishing in Ukraine, with the UN and partner organisations on Tuesday announcing that they were seeking $1.7bn in funding to provide urgent support.

Around $1.1bn will be used to help people in Ukraine for an initial three months to help provide food, shelter, healthcare and education services. It is also appealing for a further $550.6m to support refugees in neighbouring countries.

“The most pressing appeal is the need to stop hostilities,” UN high commissioner for refugees, Filippo Grandi, told reporters in Geneva, stressing that while humanitarians “will do their utmost” nobody should imagine that they can solve this problem.

UN humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths said: “Families with small children are hunkered down in basements and subway stations or running for their lives to the terrifying sound of explosions and wailing sirens. Casualty numbers are rising fast. This is the darkest hour for the people of Ukraine.”

“We need to ramp up our response now to protect the lives and dignity of ordinary Ukrainians. We must respond with compassion and solidarity.”