The U.N. refugee agency is warning that millions of Ukrainians inside and outside their country desperately need humanitarian and protection assistance as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine escalates and spreads to new areas of the country.
Over the past three weeks, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees said Friday, more than 3.2 million people have fled Ukraine in search of safety in neighboring countries. More than 2 million people are displaced inside Ukraine, and about 13 million are affected in the areas hardest hit by the war.
Those places include cities such as Mariupol and Sumy, where Russia has relentlessly bombed residential areas and destroyed civilian infrastructure, such as the theater in Mariupol.
On a video link from Rzesow, Poland, UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh said many people remain trapped and without essential services in those and other areas of escalating conflict. He said they were short of food, water and medicines.
“Humanitarian reports received from those areas are horrifying, and we continue to call for the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, respect for international humanitarian law, and appeal to neighboring countries to continue keeping their borders open to those fleeing in search of safety,” Saltmarsh said.
In its latest update, the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) recorded 2,149 civilian casualties, including 816 killed. The agency said it thought the actual figures were considerably higher and certain to rise as Ukraine runs out of so-called safe havens.
Lviv in western Ukraine has come under attack. Threats against the major port city of Odesa are rising, and humanitarian needs are becoming more urgent even in the Russian-backed separatist Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.
Saltmarsh said refugees who have been arriving in Poland in the past five or six days have been more traumatized and in shock than those who had arrived in the first phase of the fast-moving exodus.
“As women and children constitute 90 percent of those who have fled Ukraine for neighboring countries, UNHCR and other agencies have warned of increased risks of trafficking and exploitation," he said. "Given the very high protection risks, UNHCR and partners are disseminating key information and awareness-raising messages to alert refugees of the risks of trafficking, exploitation and abuse.”
Saltmarsh said the UNHCR is working with the U.N. children’s fund to expand protection services for children in six countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. He said the agencies are providing safe spaces and protection services for children, families, and others with specific needs.