The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused civilian casualties and destruction of infrastructure, forcing more than 4 million Ukrainians to flee their country in search of refuge and protection.
According to figures from March 31, the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 4,102,876 citizens have fled Ukraine since the Russian invasion began last February 24.
Most of them (2,384,814) have arrived in Poland thanks to the “tremendous effort” of its government, which has implemented an open borders policy to welcome Vladimir Putin’s war-displaced people.
“This has been a tremendous effort by the people, local communities, municipalities and the government of Poland to receive and welcome the new arrivals,” said Christine Goyer, UNHCR’s representative in Poland, who also called on the international community to “step up” and provide support to ensure the protection of the displaced people.
The Romanian government claims to have taken in more than 620,000 Ukrainians in one month of invasion. Another 390,000 have arrived in the Republic of Moldova, some 370,000 crossed into Hungary, nearly 300,000 arrived in Slovakia and almost 13,000 have arrived in Belarus.
Interestingly, the Russian Federation also claims to have received some 350,000 Ukrainian refugees as a result of its own invasion.
Ukrainian refugees terror
Harvard documentary photographer Daniel Farber Huang, who has traveled for years covering refugee crises in countries such as Haiti, China, Greece, Turkey, Bangladesh and Mexico, is on the Ukraine-Poland border documenting the humanitarian crisis and the huge exodus of Ukrainian citizens.
According to Huang, there are two fundamental aspects of the humanitarian crisis that has resulted from the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the “immediacy” with which the exodus was generated and the fact that most of the refugees are women, the elderly, and children.
“Russia launched its first attack on Ukrainian cities about four weeks ago, with massive force and brutality, displacing more than three million Ukrainians (with more than one million people crossing into Poland), creating an immediate massive humanitarian crisis,” Huang told The Harvard Gazette. “The vast majority of the refugees are women, children and the elderly, as Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country while martial law is in effect.”
Huang contrasts his experience in Poland with what he has seen in the refugee crises in Turkey and Greece between 2017 and 2018, where a “remarkable proportion” were single men of military age from Syria, Iraq and neighboring countries fleeing persecution by the Syrian regime, ISIS and other forces.
The main terror facing Ukrainian refugees, Huang says, is the welfare of children. In addition, the vast majority show concern given that Ukrainian money has become “virtually worthless,” so they are “severely limited” in resources.
“There are huge practical considerations that displaced people have to face, from such immediate things as finding water, food and shelter to getting information,” Huang recounted, but he highlighted that, fortunately, the Polish people have unleashed “a torrent of compassion” and have directed resources from all parts of Poland to address the crisis.
Among the resources that Poles have provided are basic relief supplies sent by NGOs, temporary accommodation in state reception centers, free SIM cards offered by cell phone operators, and free train and bus tickets offered by the Polish government.
“Unfortunately, there are so many horrible situations that people are facing which are hard to narrow them down,” Huang said, mentioning that many refugees suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) because of the “horrors” they have had to witness since their country was invaded.
“At the border, there was a mother with two children, a teenager and a toddler, who was clearly upset, with a look of pain and tears on her face, as she crossed the gate into Poland,” the photographer recounted. “Through our interpreter, the mother, Lyudmilla, said that her house and neighborhood in Chernihiv (about 35 miles east) were shelled and destroyed, with her family inside. Her 17-year-old son, Slava, pulled her and her baby out of the rubble. Her parents built the house. Her husband stayed in Ukraine to fight.”
In addition to the more than 4 million refugees in neighboring countries, UNHCR says another 6 million have been displaced inside Ukraine when their cities have been destroyed.
In his first visit to Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi called on Thursday for an end to the war, while urging the international community to provide sustained support to the millions of affected civilians.
Huang’s documentary work is posted on his Instagram account. Each photo contains a description of the stories collected by the photographer.