4 million refugees have fled Russia’s ‘senseless war’

More than 4 million Ukrainian refugees have now fled their homeland to neighboring countries to escape Russia’s “senseless war,” the United Nations said Wednesday. More than half of them have sought safety in Poland, according to U.N. data.

The rapidness and scale of the displacement is unprecedented in the modern era. Erol Yayboke, director and senior fellow for the Project on Fragility and Mobility at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo News that Eastern Europe is witnessing “the fastest forced displacement crisis on the European continent since World War II.”

Those millions of people require an intense amount of resources, including immediate needs like food, water, shelter and medicine. In the long term, they will require education, health care, access to job markets and more. No city or region is capable of absorbing as many refugees without significant help.

The chief of the U.N. High Commission for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday. «In Lviv I will discuss with the authorities, the UN and other partners ways to increase our support to people affected and displaced by this senseless war,» he tweeted.

A young child wearing a knotted shawl looks backward as a crowd of refugees line up.

Ukrainian refugees wait in Przemysl, Poland, outside a temporary shelter on March 29. (Reuters/Hannah McKay)

So far, the majority of those who have fled are women and children. This is in part because Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 who are eligible to serve in the military have been banned from leaving the country and asked to join in the fight.

The movement of people does not include only the refugees who have fled Ukraine. Yayboke says an additional 6.5 million people are thought to be displaced internally within the country. “We need to be looking at forced displacement from [the] ‘How many people have been forced from home?’ perspective,” he said. That number, he adds, “is a quarter of the population of Ukraine.”

According to U.N. data, fewer people have crossed the border in recent days. But Yayboke thinks this may be a temporary lull.

“I think there will continue to be a flow of people that leaves Ukraine,» he said. «As you’re seeing from the data, there’ll be a leveling off for now, but if fighting intensifies, and if it expands to places like Lviv and elsewhere in the west, then … you could see significantly increased refugee numbers.”

A young mother carrying a toddler waits in a bus shelter with her other son by her side.

Yulia Kuzyk, 30, from Kalush, Ukraine, who came to Poland with her two sons, waits for a bus to return to her homeland at a bus station in Warsaw on March 28. (Reuters/Kuba Stezycki)

There are no signs that the war is stopping anytime soon. Despite Russia’s promise to scale back military activity near Ukraine’s capital and Chernihiv after peace talks in Istanbul, attacks continued overnight around both cities, regional leaders said Wednesday.

Because of the constant shelling of Ukrainian cities, and the challenges in keeping humanitarian corridors safe, many people remain trapped in areas of escalating conflict and are unable to leave, Yayboke says. The U.N. estimates that approximately 13 million are stranded in the affected areas. Others are waiting to see how the war evolves to make their next move.

“Many of them are staying in places in western Ukraine, like Lviv. I think a lot of them are probably waiting to see how the fighting continues, whether it continues further west of the river, whether Kyiv falls, whether there’s a peace process or something like that. They’re waiting to see that to decide whether they are going to go on to Poland or Slovakia, Hungary or Romania,” Yayboke said.

He also cited the openness of the borders of neighboring countries — and the degree to which Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed — as a key factor.

“The solidarity, the support and the open borders are certainly there, and I think that we can learn from that, in other contexts,” Yayboke said. «There should be an effort to make sure that those borders continue to remain open.»

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