On February 24, Russia deployed its military into Ukraine, its neighbour in Eastern Europe. Bombs and shelling have continued to escalate, deliberately targeting homes and civilian infrastructure. More than 3 million people have now fled across borders to seek safety 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.
“In the cities and streets of Ukraine today, innocent civilians are bearing witness to our Age of Impunity,” said IRC president and CEO David Miliband. “The fact that 1 million refugees have already been forced to flee is a grim testament to barbaric military tactics taking aim at homes and hospitals.”
What is happening in Ukraine?
Hundreds of civilians have been killed in the Russian attacks on Ukraine since February 24. Thousands have been displaced within the country and over 3 million have been forced to flee into neighboring 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. A hospital was also damaged during the initial stages of invasion; another 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, killing over 3,000 people, displacing more than 850,000 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. The world will bear witness to the deaths of innocent civilians, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and massive displacement of families within Ukraine and beyond.
The impacts of the conflict will be felt not just across Europe but around the globe. The war will also impact food supplies, particularly access to wheat, for countries like Yemen, Libya and Lebanon that are already facing high levels of food insecurity.
Economy in decline
War would further devastate Ukraine’s already weakened infrastructure. The country’s health system, already reeling from COVID-19, is fragile, and its economy has declined drastically. Food and fuel shortages would be acute, public services rendered nonfunctioning.
Refugees 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.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has warned that the Russian invasion could displace up to 5 million Ukrainians, who would join what is already a record 31 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world.
Neighboring states are preparing to provide support to arriving refugees. Poland, for instance, has estimated that it could receive up to 1 million refugees from Ukraine.
The situation for those who remain inside Ukraine is also precarious.
“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 the IRC’s senior director of emergencies, Lani Fortier. “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 traveling alone, could be at risk of exploitation and abuse.”
The impacts on women and girls
The majority of the 1.52 million 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 Nation Secretary General’s call to protect civilians. The UN Charter must be respected and international humanitarian law must be 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 assistance.
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.
What the European Union must do
European states are taking the right steps to help people forced to flee. 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 those fleeing Ukraine by keeping borders open 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.
“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, color or creed.”
How is the IRC helping?
As Poland prepares to receive as many as 1 million refugees from Ukraine, the IRC is working to scale up the support we provide to the government and local nonprofits to address the crisis, and help meet the basic needs of people fleeing the conflict.
We are also working with partners in Poland and Ukraine that are quickly mobilizing resources to provide critical support to people who have been uprooted from their homes.
“We truly hope we can avert disaster and avoid the human suffering we will inevitably see if this conflict continues to escalate,” says Lani Fortier. “However, the IRC is ready and preparing for the worst.