Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are pouring towards neighbouring countries to flee the Russian invasion

António Cossa on the way with the refugies from Ukraine - United Photo Press

In the three days since the invasion began, more than 115,000 have crossed into Poland alone - some travelling for more than two days, others joining queues 15km (10 miles) long at border points.
Those fleeing are mostly women and children, as all Ukrainian men aged 18 to 60 are being told to stay and fight.

On 2 March, major urban centres in certain parts of Ukraine, such as Kharkiv (east), Kherson (south), Mariupol (south-east), and the capital Kyiv, witnessed the most intense clashes since the Russian military offensive began on 24 February. Settlements along the “contact line” in Donetska and Luhanska oblasts, such as Volnovakha, Shchastia and Stanytsia Luhanska, have been heavily impacted. Between 4 a.m. on 24 February and 2 March 2022, OHCHR recorded 802 civilian casualties in Ukraine, including 249 people killed. The human cost of ongoing clashes is likely much higher as access and security challenges make it difficult to verify the actual number of deaths and injuries.

In recent days, many cities have experienced relentless shelling that has caused significant damage to crucial infrastructure and further restricted access to vital services. Critical supplies, including food, medicine and basic hygiene items, are becoming increasingly scarcer in the hardest-hit areas, while dwindling cash reserves, empty ATMs and suspended money transfer services have greatly curtailed affected people’s ability to purchase basic goods even when markets are functioning and accessible.

Water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) needs, especially in eastern Ukraine, continue to worsen as escalating tensions prevent urgently needed repair works from being carried out, while limited access makes it more difficult for partners to provide WASH assistance. In Mariupol, Sartana and Staryi Krym, around 470,000 people remain without access to water.

Stoppages in the water supply are also reportedly affecting the functioning of heating systems in certain locations amid freezing winter temperatures.

Moreover, the health needs generated by the ongoing conflict are particularly acute. The World Health Organization (WHO) says it has received several unconfirmed reports of attacks on hospitals and health infrastructure. There are critical shortages of oxygen and other critical drugs and medical supplies, as conflict-related injuries and COVID-19 infections place increasing strain on the already-weak healthcare system. With millions of people now on the move, the conditions on the ground are ripe for the spread of COVID-19, potentially triggering a double health emergency that could overwhelm the health system.

Refugees flee across EU borders as Russian attacks continue. António Cossa - United Photo Press

In Kyiv, thousands of people continue to pack overcrowded train stations in an attempt to flee the capital as Russian troops advance towards the city, limiting the movement of people and essential goods in and out of the city. On 2 March, debris from a powerful explosion reportedly landed close to the central railway station in Kyiv used to evacuate thousands of women and children. The level of damage and number of civilian causalities have yet to be confirmed.

The most affected areas of the country are facing a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Increasing numbers of people are trapped in cities under constant attack, as wide-scale evacuations have not been possible in certain locations.

As clashes escalate, a growing number of people are being displaced every day within Ukraine and across international borders, increasing the scope and scale of the ongoing crisis into neighbouring countries. one million people have fled Ukraine over the last week – the equivalent of more than 142,000 people on average per day – a number that will likely increase as constant violence and destruction of homes displaces more people.

The situation of third country nationals from countries in Africa and South Asia and other ethnic minority groups in Ukraine, including the Roma population, is particularly concerning, as there have been numerous reports of discrimination and even violence against these vulnerable groups. The Roma population lack civil status documents, limiting access to critical services, including education and health, and potentially humanitarian assistance as many Roman internally displaced people were not registered prior to the current escalation in conflict.

Antonio Cossa
United Photo Press Photojornalist