Tens of thousands of people fled Ukraine since the start of Russia’s invasion, the United Nations has said, warning that the violence could trigger a wave of up to five million refugees fleeing towards neighbouring countries.
The UN refugee agency sounded the alarm on Friday as Russian forces closed in on the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, on the second day of a sea, land and air offensive ordered by President Vladimir Putin.
The military invasion, the biggest Russian military deployment since World War II, has so far caused the death of at least 130 people and prompted thousands of people to seek refuge in neighbouring countries such as Moldova, Romania and Poland.
“More than 50,000 Ukrainian refugees have fled their country in less than 48 hours – a majority to Poland and Moldova,” the head of the UN refugee agency Filippo Grandi said in a tweet, cautioning that “many more are moving towards its borders.”
A spokesperson for the agency earlier said at least 100,000 people had been uprooted in Ukraine after fleeing their homes.
Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s regional director for Europe and Central Asia, told a UN briefing in Geneva that the UN children’s agency was preparing for an exodus of refugees and “looking at ranges of one to three million into Poland, for example … A scenario of one to five million including all surrounding countries.”
“As we speak, there have been major attacks in Kyiv that have created great fear and panic among the population with families really scared, moving alongside their children into subways and shelters,” Khan told the briefing. “This is clearly a terrifying moment for children across the country,” she added.
Khan also said it was setting up shelters for women and children along escape routes and bolstering its presence in the region. The UN children’s agency regional director said the agency was focusing on cash assistance to families. The effect of Western sanctions, which have been imposed on Russia, will be analysed in terms of the aid pipeline, she said.
Slovakia has experienced an inflow of people since Thursday with eight-hour queues forming at the Slovakia-Ukraine border crossing of Vysne Nemecke, the Slovak customs administration said.
Poland, which is already home to about two million Ukrainians and shares a 535-kilometre with the besieged country, has been preparing for a range of scenarios. Deputy Interior Minister Maciej Wąsik warned in late January that up to one million displaced people could seek refuge. On Thursday, Warsaw said it planned to open nine reception centres along the border.
Germany is also getting ready for a wave of refugees, with local media estimating that between 200,000 and a million people may flee to the European Union.
In Moldova, 4,000 refugees arrived on Thursday as the government deployed temporary placement centres in the towns of Palanca and Ocnita.