UNHCR: Escalation of war in Ukraine could drive 4 million refugees

A Ukrainian hugs his granddaughter and daughter after they crossed the border from Shehyni in Ukraine to Medyka in Poland. Thousands are fleeing war as Russia invades Ukraine. (Credit: Keystone/Michael Kappeler/dpa)

Thousands of people are fleeing the Russian airstrikes and shelling in Ukraine and pouring into neighbouring countries, as the second day of war rages on. Many have had to wait for up to 12 hours to cross the border with Poland – most of them women and children as men between 18 and 60 have been barred from leaving Ukraine. They have been told to stay and fight for their country.

Poland, which is expected to receive the lion share of the influx, is setting up reception centres to receive the refugees  and equipping its hospitals to treat the wounded. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is providing support for authorities on the ground. Shabia Mantoo, spokesperson for the agency, tells Geneva Solutions how the intensifying violence could send millions fleeing.

GS News: Thousands of people have been forced to leave their homes in Ukraine and seek refuge in neighbouring countries. How many people are we talking about?

Shabia Mantoo: Since yesterday we've been seeing a significant number of people moving both within Ukraine, but also across borders to neighbouring countries. We estimate at least 100,000 people were displaced inside the country, but that figure could be substantially higher. We've also seen several thousands that have already crossed the borders to neighbouring countries. For instance, we've seen arrivals being reported in Poland, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia and Russia. We don't have a tally for the outflows, but for instance, Moldova already reported 5,000 arrivals yesterday alone, but those numbers have gone up for sure for today. 

GS News: What are countries and UN agencies doing to receive these people fleeing the violence?

SM: We've been advocating for borders to remain open to people who are fleeing, so we're very encouraged by the fact that this is happening and that people can access safety. But it's the national authorities that are managing the registration of people that are coming in, what we call reception, so receiving them and then in some instances providing accommodation as well. 

As UNHCR, we have stockpiles pre positioned in various locations in the region, and we're ready to send supplies to support those countries, if that is required. Today we had contingency items moving to Moldova from Greece, such as blankets, sleeping mats, winterisation kits, sleeping bags, and other basic assistance.

GS News: Ukraine has a population of 44 million – one of the largest in Europe. Could this turn into a large-scale refugee crisis, with millions fleeing?

SM: I can't speak to the dynamics of the situation, but in terms of humanitarian impact, we've already seen reports of casualties and people fleeing their homes to seek safety. The paramount concern is that civilian lives and civilian infrastructure must be protected and safeguarded at all times. We are already seeing these movements happening – they are sporadic and unpredictable, but we do know that there are significant numbers moving. If the situation escalates, further, there could be many more who have to flee the country to neighbouring countries and that can be up to four million, for instance. This is one of the scenarios but we really hope that's not the case and the situation is restored.

GS News: The European Union has a bad track record in handling forced migration flows in the past, resulting in certain countries being overburdened and in migrants being left to fend for themselves. Could things be different this time, with Ukrainians?

SM: It's hard to speculate, but we call on all countries in the region that anyone who's seeking safety and protection is able to access that. And that applies to all refugees, beyond this situation. As the UN refugee agency, we have been quite vocal about access to asylum and access to territory for other refugees as well who have been seeking safety and protection in this part of the world. We're encouraged by the situation here and people being able to access safety and protection, but it's an illustration of why the Refugee Convention is so important, because this is exactly what it was designed for and why it's a fundamental right to be protected and safeguarded in the first place. It's life saving.