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Ukraine crisis

The Ukraine-Russia crisis: 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.

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Photo: Imago/Pacific Press Agency

More than 3 million people have fled across borders to seek safety since Russia deployed its military into neighboring 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 as the Ukraine crisis continues.

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 lifesaving support to civilians forced to flee their homes amid growing violence.

What is happening in Ukraine? 

Over 700 civilians have been reported killed in the Russian attacks. More than 2 million people have reportedly 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 childen.

Public infrastructure has also been destroyed, meaning thousands of people are without adequate water, heat and electricity, or are unable to reach stores to buy basic necessities because roads and bridges are unpassable. Health facilities, including a maternity and children's hospital, have also been damaged during the 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 tensions 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, a Ukrainian export—for countries like Yemen, Libya and Lebanon that are already facing high levels of food insecurity.

Economy in decline

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

Refugees at risk

As attacks continue to target civilians, many more Ukrainians are being displaced from their homes, both within their country and across borders. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations has warned that the Russian invasion could displace up to 5 million people, who would join what is already a record 31 million refugees and asylum seekers around the world.

A man holding a small child are among people waiting to board an evacuation train at Kyiv train station, Ukraine, on February 25, 2022

People wait to board an evacuation train from Kyiv to Lviv at Kyiv's central train station, Ukraine.

Photo: REUTERS/Umit Bektas

The situation for those who remain inside Ukraine is also increasingly precarious.

Women and girls, especially those traveling alone, could be at risk of exploitation and abuse.

“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 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 traveling alone, could be at risk of exploitation and abuse.”

Also at particular risk are the refugees Ukraine hosts from other countries such as Afghanistan and Belarus

The impacts on women and girls

The majority of the 3 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 prioritize 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?

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. European countries must welcome their neighbors fleeing Ukraine by keeping borders open, providing adequate reception support, and ensuring full access to asylum.

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 ramped 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 other neighbors who are welcoming refugees at their borders.

And, most important, Europe must not just offer protection to Ukrainian nationals who have visa-free access to the European Union, but to people of all citizenships and nationalities arriving from Ukraine who face grave dangers as the conflict escalates. 

“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," said IRC president and CEO David Miliband.

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.

“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?

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. 

We are working through our local partners to provide critical information services, legal counseling and psychological support to some of the 1.8 million people that have arrived in Poland from Ukraine. We are also distributing medical supplies and procuring essential items such as sleeping bags and blankets for distribution at reception centers on the Ukrainian/Polish border.

In Ukraine, we are working with our partners to support the evacuation of women and children as well as delivering blankets, sleeping bags, warm clothes and other essentials 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.

Learn more about the IRC's Ukraine crisis response and how we respond to other emergencies.