Tens of thousands of people have 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.
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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.
In response to the emergency, Slovak authorities have lifted all COVID-related restrictions and said they will open more border crossings if necessary.
“I hope everything will be OK and in one or two weeks, we can return home,” a Ukrainian resident at the border town of Ubla, told Al Jazeera. “Friends will come for us and then we will see what will happen in Ukraine,” said another refugee after crossing the border.
Poland, which is already home to about two million Ukrainians and shares a 535-kilometre (332-mile) 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.
“We will offer massive support to the affected states – especially our neighbour, Poland – in the event of large refugee movements,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said on Thursday, adding she had been in touch with the Polish government and the European Commission.
Berlin Mayor Franziska Giffey told news outlet rbb|24 that the German capital was preparing for the arrival of refugees.
“For next week, we have set ourselves the goal of discussing concrete implications, what preparations we can make, especially in the event of people fleeing this situation,” Giffey said.
In Moldova, 4,000 refugees arrived on Thursday as the government deployed temporary placement centres in the towns of Palanca and Ocnita.
“Our borders are open for Ukrainian citizens who need safe transit,” the country’s President Maia Sandu said on Twitter.
First 🇺🇦 citizens arrive in 🇲🇩, with over 4000 crossings today. The govt has deployed temporary placement centers near Palanca and Ocnița. Our borders are open for 🇺🇦 citizens who need safe transit or stay. pic.twitter.com/F0NsQcKx02
— Maia Sandu (@sandumaiamd) February 24, 2022
Hungary also said this week that it was sending additional troops to the border to manage an anticipated influx, including by providing humanitarian aid.
Ukrainians can now travel free of charge by train in the Czech Republic. They only have to show their passport during ticket control, the state-owned railway company Ceske Drahy said on Friday. This is to enable Ukrainians who want to respond to Kyiv’s general mobilisation order to quickly return to their home country, the railway said.
Meanwhile, interior ministers from EU member states were due to hold an urgent meeting on Saturday to discuss the potential for a large-scale wave of refugees into the bloc.
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin announced the meeting on Twitter but did not give any further details.