One million refugees have fled Ukraine in the week since Russia’s invasion, the United Nations said Thursday, warning that unless the conflict ended immediately, millions more were likely to flee.
“In just seven days we have witnessed the exodus of one million refugees from Ukraine to neighbouring countries,” UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi tweeted.
“Unless there is an immediate end to the conflict, millions more are likely to be forced to flee Ukraine,” Grandi warned.
According to frequently updated UNHCR data, 1,002,860 have now fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the full-scale invasion on February 24.
Grandi said the numbers were rising with incredible speed.
“I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one,” he said.
“Hour by hour, minute by minute, more people are fleeing the terrifying reality of violence,” he said.
The UN’ aid chief on Thursday pleaded for humanitarians to be allowed to work unhindered in the Ukraine conflict, in an interview with AFP.
“Protect civilians, for God’s sake, in Ukraine; let us do our job,” the UN’s emergency relief coordinator Martin Griffiths said, adding that with $1.5 billion rapidly raised for urgent aid, “we have the resources.”
More than half of those who have fled Ukraine have crossed into neighboring Poland. Hungary, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia have also welcomed many refugees.
The UNHCR said more than 505,500 people have left Ukraine for Poland in the past week. Poland’s border guards put the figure at over 575,000 by early Thursday, with 95,000 having crossed on Wednesday alone.
Countless people have also been displaced inside the Ukraine.
Grandi said UNHCR staff and other humanitarians were “working where and when they can in frightening conditions” inside Ukraine.
“Our staff stay, even at great risk, because we know the needs in the country are huge.”
The UN refugee chief also hailed the “remarkable” response of governments and local communities in surrounding countries that have received more than one million refugees.
“International solidarity has been heart-warming,” he said.
“But nothing – nothing – can replace the need for the guns to be silenced; for dialogue and diplomacy to succeed. Peace is the only way to halt this tragedy.”
France on Thursday expressed fear that the worst phase of Russia’s war on Ukraine could be yet to start, with key Ukrainian cities at risk of encirclement by Russian forces.
“I think it is possible that the worst is ahead of us,” Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told France 2 TV, saying that Russia would look to besiege cities after its initial expectations of a quick victory were scuppered by Ukrainian resistance.
“The Russians entered Ukraine looking for a blitzkrieg, a fast advance that would allow Russia to control Ukraine,” said Le Drian.
“It was not the case, due to the exemplary, courageous and strong resistance from the Ukrainians.”
He said after the fall to Russia of the southern city of Kherson – confirmed by Ukraine overnight – centers including Kharkiv in the east, Mariupol in the south and Kyiv itself were at risk of encirclement.
“As forces build up around those cities we can fear a siege mentality,” he said.
Germany, for its part, will increase its weapons deliveries to Ukraine by sending 2,700 anti-aircraft missiles to the conflict zone, a government source told AFP on Thursday.
The government “approved further support for Ukraine,” involving the delivery of STRELA-type anti-aircraft missiles of Soviet manufacture, which were previously used by the army of communist East Germany, the source said.
Germany’s first arms consignment of 1,000 anti-tank and another 500 anti-aircraft missiles has already been dispatched to the front, the government said on Wednesday.