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A family living approximately 10 miles from the Donetsk frontlines in Gornyak, Ukraine
Ukraine crisis

Russian attack on Ukraine: What is happening?

Civilians in Ukraine are being targeted and fleeing their homes in what the United Nations calls the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

More than 5 million people have fled across borders to seek safety since Russia deployed its military into neighbouring Ukraine on February 24. Bombs and shelling have continued to escalate, deliberately targeting homes and civilian infrastructure in what could become the worst humanitarian crisis Europe has seen in decades

The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is calling on the Russian government to immediately cease all violations of international law to spare additional harm to civilians and avoid further displacement.

We're on the ground in Poland, working with our partners to provide critical information services as well as sleeping bags, medical supplies and other essentials to refugees from Ukraine who are crossing the border. In Ukraine, we are working with partners to provide life-saving support to civilians forced to flee their homes amid growing violence.

What is happening in Ukraine?

Over 2,072 civilians have been killed in the Russian attacks on Ukraine since February 24. An estimated 7.1 million people have reportedly been displaced within the country and over 5 million have been forced to flee across borders–into neighbouring Moldova, Poland and other European states. Most are women and children.

Public infrastructure has also been destroyed, meaning thousands of people are without adequate water and electricity or are unable to reach stores to buy basic necessities because roads and bridges are unpassable. Hospitals have also been damaged during the invasion; a grave breach of international humanitarian law. 

Ukraine was shaken by conflict even before the recent invasion: In 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began backing pro-Russian separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine. Fighting has been raging in these areas over the past eight years, displacing more than 850,000 people from their homes and leaving almost 3 million in need of humanitarian aid.

What has caused the escalation in tension between Ukraine and Russia?

Ukraine–which declared itself an independent country in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union– has been forming closer ties with the European Union and with NATO. Russia, however, sees these ties as an economic and strategic threat to its own security.

What does war mean for Ukraine?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine could displace far more people and cause more human suffering than Europe has seen this century. Million of residents from Ukraine cities including Mariupol, Chernihiv, Kharkiv, Mykolaiv and Sumy are now either displaced or living through the conflict. These people require urgent humanitarian assistance and are exposed to safety and security risks. Violations of humanitarian law have already been committed. Hospitals and humanitarian corridors have been attacked. Local ceasefires and humanitarian access to areas most affected are needed immediately.

“We are extremely concerned for the safety and security risks for the many women and children that are arriving alone or becoming displaced within Ukraine.” Said IRC’s Vice President of Emergencies Bob Kitchen. “As urban areas increasingly fall under siege, the IRC is doubly fearful of witnessing the same cruel tactics inflicted on the populations of Aleppo and Idlib across Ukraine." 

The impact of the conflict will be felt across Europe and the globe. The war will also impact food supplies- particularly access to wheat, a Ukrainian export- for countries like Yemen, Libya and Lebanon that are already facing high levels of food insecurity.

Economy is in decline 

Further violence will devastate Ukraine’s already weakened infrastructure. The country’s health system, reeling from COVID-19 and years of conflict, is fragile, and its economy has declined drastically. Food and fuel shortages are likely to be acute, public services rendered nonfunctioning.

Refugees in Ukraine are at risk

As the attacks continue to target civilians, many Ukrainians are being displaced from their homes, both within the country and across borders. 

Neighbouring states are preparing to provide support to the arriving refugees. Since February 24 Poland has received over 2.9 million refugees from Ukraine.

“We’re extremely concerned about the rising humanitarian needs in the country - thousands of people who have fled their homes are currently without basic necessities including shelter and food,” said  IRC’s senior director of emergencies Lani Fortier. “In displacement contexts, women and girls are always the most adversely affected and bear the brunt of crises - the situation in Ukraine is no different - Women and girls, especially those travelling alone could be at risk of exploitation and abuse.”

Ukraine itself also hosts refugees from other countries, such as Afghanistan and Belarus, who are at particular risk.

The impacts on women and girls   

The majority of the refugees who have fled Ukraine are women and children. Along with women displaced within Ukraine, they are at grave risk of violence, exploitation and abuse. 

Women and girls impacted by the crisis are also increasingly unable to reach the emergency medical services, basic health care, and social services they need. An estimated 80,000 women will give birth in the next three months in Ukraine. If the crisis continues to shut down essential services, many will do so without access to critical maternal health care. For them, childbirth could be a life-threatening experience.

The IRC is calling for international donors and world leaders to prioritise support and protection services for women and girls. This means listening to Ukrainian women and girls themselves and including women’s rights organizations in all affected countries in coordinating and implementing the humanitarian response

What can Western leaders and the humanitarian community do about the crisis?

People impacted by the conflict in Ukraine must be protected.

The IRC strongly backs the United Nations Secretary General’s call to protect civilians. The UN Charter must be respected and International Humanitarian Law followed including the protection of schools and hospitals. People must be allowed to move freely, and aid agencies must be granted access to those in need of aid. 

At the same time, the world must prepare for the worst and ensure relief services inside and outside Ukraine have the funds they need to save lives and alleviate suffering.

European countries must welcome their neighbours fleeing Ukraine by keeping borders open, providing adequate reception support, and ensuring full access to asylum. Europe must not just offer protection to Ukrainian nationals who have visa-free access to the European Union, but to people of all citizenship and nationalities arriving from Ukraine who face grave dangers as the conflict escalates.

What the European Union must do

European states are taking the right steps to prepare for people forced to flee. However, these efforts must be rapidly stepped up and translated into meaningful and concrete support. States must ensure safe passage and access to their territory and adequately prepare for a humane and effective response. They must also stand with and provide support to Ukraine's neighbours who are welcoming refugees at their borders. 

European countries must welcome their neighbours fleeing Ukraine by keeping borders open, providing adequate reception support, and ensuring full access to asylum and adequate reception. Europe must not just offer protection to Ukrainian nationals who have visa-free access to the European Union, but to people of all citizenship and nationalities arriving from Ukraine who face grave dangers as the conflict escalates. 

“Reports of pushbacks of individuals of African and Asian origin at the Ukrainian border must be condemned in the strongest terms,” said David Miliband. “Discrimination and unfair treatment of refugees is always intolerable, but it is especially so when conflict is intensifying in urban areas and violations of international humanitarian law are mounting by the hour. 

“Seeking asylum is a human right, and it is our moral imperative to give refuge to those fleeing for their lives no matter their race, religion, colour or creed.”

How is the IRC helping?

The IRC is on the ground in Poland, and working with local partners in both Poland and Ukraine. Working with partners allows us to bolster the crisis response of people who have already been active in the community and are experts on the local context. 

In the initial phase of our response, the IRC is working through partners to provide critical information services, legal counselling and psychological support to some of the 1.6 million people that have arrived in Poland from Ukraine. We are also procuring medical supplies and essential items such as sleeping bags and blankets for distribution at reception centres on the Ukrainian/Polish border.

In Ukraine, we are working with partners to provide blankets, sleeping bags and warm clothes to people who have been displaced. We are also providing cash so people in need can purchase what they need the most. 

“We will work to respond where we are needed the most and with the services that are needed urgently," says Lani Fortier.

Quick facts about Ukraine:

What is the capital of Ukraine?

Kyiv.

What is the population of Ukraine?

More than 44 million people live in the country.

When did Ukraine become independent? 

Ukraine became independent in 1991.

What language is spoken in Ukraine? 

The official language is Ukrainian, but a large part of the population in the eastern part of the country has Russian as a mother tongue.

Is Ukraine in the EU? 

Ukraine is not a member of the EU but there is an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine.