GENEVA - The U.N. refugee agency is warning of a growing displacement crisis in Ukraine as winter looms, and that urgent action is needed to help protect the hundreds of thousands of people already dislocated by fighting.
The agency says scant preparations have been made to provide the warmth, shelter and clothing needed to get hundreds of thousands of people through the harsh winter.
Latest United Nations estimates show Ukraine’s internally displaced population has risen to 430,000 people, up 60 percent (170,000 people) since the start of September. UNHCR says ongoing fighting in the east and the breakdown of basic services is driving more and more people to flee their homes.
UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards says 95 percent of the displaced are from eastern Ukraine. Those whose lives have been disrupted by fighting are concentrated in Donetsk and Kharkiv, as well as in Kyiv and other cities in the Dnieper River basin. He says his agency is racing to help some of the most vulnerable displaced people cope with what is expected to be a very harsh winter.
“In all these areas, UNHCR has been distributing emergency humanitarian assistance targeting the most vulnerable. We are planning to distribute additional winter clothes and blankets over the coming weeks, as well as providing reinforced tarpaulin sheets for roof repairs in the east of Ukraine," said Edwards.
Edwards says most of the displaced people are staying in rented accommodations or with family and friends. However, he notes that between 4,000 and nearly 19,000 people are currently living in collective shelters.
“With the onset of winter, one of the urgent priorities is to make sure that these centers are weather-proofed [and] that warm blankets and winter clothes are being provided for those in greatest need. We are planning to refurbish 40 collective centers in major arrival areas," he said.
Edwards welcomes what he calls important steps being taken by the Ukrainian government to protect and assist displaced people. Over the past two weeks, he says, the government has enacted new resolutions on registration and assistance for these vulnerable people.
And on Monday, he notes, the Ukrainian parliament adopted a law on the rights and freedoms of internally displaced people. He says this law will protect those who have fled their homes from discrimination or forcible return, and offer assistance to those returning voluntarily to their homes.
Meanwhile, UNHCR reports more than 200,000 Ukrainians have applied for refugee status or temporary asylum in Russia since the beginning of the year. It adds some 180,000 other Ukrainians have applied for other forms of legal stay in that country.
As of the end of September, the UNHCR says more than 6,600 Ukrainians have requested asylum in European countries — a huge jump from 2013, when there were 903 applications during the entire year.