Fighting in Ukraine has so far pushed roughly a half million people across the border, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reported on Monday.
“This is a massive outflow that we’re witnessing, and this has all just happened in the space of five days, so this is a fast-growing refugee emergency,” Spokesperson Shabia Mantoo told UN News.
Olga, a 36-year-old mother from the capital, Kyiv, is among the refugees. She set off from the city by car on Thursday, accompanied by her daughter, 8, and son, 2, along with a neighbour and her daughter.
After three days on the road, they arrived at the Polish border town of Zosin.
Waiting for hours
“We fled as soon as the first bombs fell. It took us 12 hours just to get out of Kyiv,” Olga told UNHCR on Saturday. Normally, the journey would have taken seven hours.
Agency staff caught up with Olga when her car was in a line of thousands on the bridge over the River Bug, which marks the border between Ukraine and Poland.
“We’ve been [waiting] here for 36 hours now,” she said at the time, referring to the 14-kilometre long queue. People arriving on foot can skip the long traffic line and enter Poland much quicker.
Ukrainians have been fleeing their homeland since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched the “special military operation” on Thursday, following weeks of troop and weapons buildup near the borders.
‘We had no choice’
The majority have headed west to Poland, most of whom are women and children. Others are entering Hungary, Moldova, Romania and beyond.
Olga looked relieved to have made it to Zosin. She explained that during the entire journey, they were not able to find a hot meal or toilet.
“I’m sure others are worse off. And at least we are healthy,” she said. When asked how they coped in the car, she replied “we had no choice.”
Olga reaches safety in Poland three days after fleeing the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
Support for refugees
Ukrainian refugees are being registered by national authorities in the countries that have received them.
UNHCR and its partners are on the ground at main border areas to support these efforts.
Filippo Grandi, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, has stressed that security and access for humanitarian action must be guaranteed.
“UNHCR is also working with Governments in neighboring countries, calling on them to keep borders open to those seeking safety and protection,” he said in a statement issued in the wake of the crisis.
“We stand ready to support efforts by all to respond to any situation of forced displacement.”
Desire to return home
Meanwhile, the UN has underlined its commitment to Ukraine. Secretary-General António Guterres last week released $20 million in emergency funding for the country and will launch a humanitarian appeal on Tuesday.
Though safe for now, Olga is uncertain about what the future holds.
Her biggest concern is the safety of her husband. “He stayed in Kyiv, donates blood all the time and takes care of the old people who couldn’t escape,” she said.
Asked what her hopes were, Olga hugged her daughter and said: “That the bombs stop. That the killing stops. And that we can go home again.”