UN refugee agency says ‘over a million’ may already be displaced by eastern Ukraine violence

A young displaced Ukrainian boy finds shelter from the cold in a tent in Slovyansk. His family hope to move to Kyiv after leaving the conflict-torn town of Debaltseve. Photo: UNHCR/B. Kinashchuk

6 February 2015 – Nearly 1 million people may have now been displaced by the conflict in eastern Ukraine, with the recent upsurge in violence causing massive destruction of buildings and infrastructure, the collapse of basic services and a spike in the numbers fleeing fighting, the United Nations refugee agency reported today.

“As more homes and other civilian infrastructure is damaged or destroyed, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects more people to be displaced to areas in central, southern and western Ukraine under the control of the Ukrainian Government, but also to non-government controlled areas in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions,” said spokesperson Adrian Edwards.

Last week, UNHCR reported at least 943,500 internally displaced persons (IDPs), with Ukraine's Ministry of Social Policy today counting some 980,000 people as currently internally displaced, expecting that figure to rise as fighting continues.

William Spindler, another spokesman for UNHCR added to Mr. Edwards’s comments by saying that numbers of IPDs are growing daily as more people register.

“Some of these people are recently displaced, which leads us to believe that the actual number might be over a million displaced inside Ukraine,” he said. “To those we need to add those who have fled to neighbouring countries.”

Currently, over 600,000 Ukrainians have fled the country, seeking refuge in neighbouring countries, particularly the Russian Federation, but also Belarus, Moldova, Poland, Hungary and Romania, since February 2014.

“Local authorities have begun to evacuate people from conflict areas, but many are still trapped by the fighting, including in basements and buildings under constant bombardment. The evacuations are being organized by the Government helped by local volunteers,” Mr. Edwards said.

So far, more than 2,800 civilians, including about 700 children and 60 people living with disability, have been evacuated from the towns of Debaltseve, Avdiivka and Svitlodar, which have seen fierce combat. Several incidents of shelling of buses carrying the evacuees have been reported.

Evacuees are being taken to government-controlled towns to the north of Donetsk such as Slovyansk, Sviatohirsk, Kramatorsk and Grodivka, as well as to the nearby Kharkiv region, but the Ukrainian Government has expressed concerns that areas close to the frontline are unable to accommodate new arrivals because of the heavy shelling they are under, and they warn that people will have to be moved further away to central, southern and western parts of the country.

Organized evacuation is mainly done by bus or car, with the most vulnerable taking trains. Train carriages at the railway station in Slovyansk are used as temporary accommodation for evacuees as they await onward transportation.

Other civilians flee conflict areas by their own means, facing numerous dangers along the way. UNHCR teams on the ground report many of the recently displaced arriving with very few belongings and very few winter clothes.

“We have been assisting some of these evacuees with warm clothing, with blankets, and other urgently needed everyday items,” said Mr. Edwards. “But we are also operating in the areas that are not under the control of the Ukrainian Government, where we are also assisting the civilian population.”

The agency has been working closely with local non-governmental organization (NGO) networks to distribute relief items, such as blankets, sleeping bags, bed linen, warm clothes and jerry cans, in northern areas of the Donetsk region, the main place of arrival of IDPs from the conflict areas. It has also assisted around 1,600 newly arrived IDPs from Debaltsevo and Vuhlehirsk in conflict-affected areas which are not controlled by the Government.

The lack of access to public services previously provided by the central authorities has drastically worsened the plight of the civilian population in areas not under government control, UNHCR reports, pointing to further aggravation of the crisis due to restrictions on the movement of people and goods.

“UNHCR maintains its call on all parties to the conflict to refrain from any actions that might endanger the life of civilians and to adhere to the principles of international humanitarian law,” Mr. Edwards stressed.

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