The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, has launched a huge relief operation to aid and protect millions of Ukrainians displaced by the Russian invasion, both inside Ukraine and as refugees in neighboring countries.
Latest U.N. estimates find at least 2 million people are displaced inside Ukraine, and more than 2.5 million refugees are sheltering in neighboring countries. The figures keep moving upwards in the fast-paced displacement crisis in line with the escalating war.
Speaking from Rzeszow, Poland, UNHCR spokesman Matthew Saltmarsh says his agency is scaling up operations to keep pace with needs. He says access to conflict-affected communities in hard-hit areas such as Mariupol and Kharkiv, is severely restricted.
Despite the dangers, he says UNHCR staff is committed to staying and delivering assistance when and where access and security allow.
“Our office there has scaled up its presence and operations in central and western Ukraine, where conditions enable more humanitarian access, and where needs are also growing as people evacuate to the west and onwards and become internally displaced,” he said.
Saltmarsh notes more than 12.5 million people are directly affected by the conflict in Ukraine, many of whom are likely to be on the move in coming days. He says the UNHCR is coordinating with local authorities to improve the reception conditions at international border crossing points. He says people are waiting in line for many hours in freezing conditions.
Inside Ukraine, he says the UNHCR is prepositioning its supply stocks, has opened warehouses in several locations, and is distributing core relief items to the internally displaced. They include blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, and kitchen sets.
“We are working with the authorities and partners to establish and expand reception capacity for IDPs in a number of cities and towns in the area and provide key protection services. Many shops in Ukraine now require cash payments, so requiring cash support is absolutely critical,” Saltmarsh said.
He says the UNHCR is ramping up its cash-assistance program for IDPs, and emergency cash programs also are being rolled out in neighboring countries, where Ukrainians are expected to seek asylum.
At the start of this crisis, the UNHCR had been planning to assist an estimated 4 million refugees. However, Saltmarsh says that figure might have to be revised upward as many more refugees are likely to flee as the war intensifies.