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Conflict in Ukraine: What do we know about the internal displacement situation so far?

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Since Russia launched a military offensive against Ukraine on 24th February, civilians have been fleeing and displacement is rising sharply, especially as the capital, Kyiv, and other major cities, are under attack. The ongoing conflict may trigger Europe's largest forced displacement crisis in decades. As the conflict intensifies, the number of refugees is increasing every day, but the situation for internally displaced people is far less clear. Here’s what we know, and what we don’t know, so far.

At least one million people are estimated to have been newly displaced in Ukraine as of early March, according to the United Nations Protection Cluster. With attacks coming from the north, south and east, and the toll on civilian infrastructure and civilian casualties rising, many people are on the move towards safer locations in the west of the country, or seeking protection across borders.

More than 900,000 people have reportedly evacuated by train from the east. Evacuations are becoming increasingly difficult due to military actions as well as limited access to fuel and information on safe accommodation options. Elderly people and people with disabilities face compounded hardships in accessing safety. Due to security risks, people are taking shelter in basements, underground car garages, air raid shelters and subway stations.

Family separation is a significant concern, with conscription-aged men barred from leaving the country and thus those on the move are primarily women, children and the elderly. There have also been alarming reports that African and Asian residents, as well as Ukrainian Roma have been subject to incidences of discrimination, particularly at the borders of Ukraine, increasing their exposure to protection risks which could heighten their risk of internal displacement.

This fast-changing situation is also representing a major challenge for humanitarian response, which in turn is making it difficult to fully understand the scale and patterns of internal displacement and how they relate to cross-border flight.

Expected displacement dynamics

With active hostilities continuing, there are a range of scenarios that could unfold. So far, most displacement has been to the west of Ukraine. Depending on how fast Russian military forces gain further territory in the north, east and south, more movements to the west could be expected.

As fighting intensifies in urban areas, people may be displaced multiple times in their search for safety. Before this country-wide military offensive, the conflict in the eastern provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk left an estimated 854,000 people internally displaced. Many of them may have been displaced again as hostilities advanced towards the west.

Given that this is a fast-changing situation, it is not possible to estimate how many people will remain displaced within Ukraine and how many will seek international protection across borders. Ongoing insecurity combined with high damage and destruction of homes and infrastructure mean that people are likely to remain displaced for prolonged periods of time. Furthermore, shortages in food, medical, electricity, gas and water supplies may aggravate the overall situation for those who are on the move.

As much of the population trapped in the cities under attack is now unable to flee due to shelling and roadblocks, further waves of displacement could also be expected at a later stage. Allowing them to move out of harm’s way will be critical.

What next?

Conflict in Ukraine will have severe impacts on civilians, including the destruction of infrastructure, disruption to public services, mass displacement and a rapid rise in humanitarian needs. After eight years of protracted conflict, needs were already high for some Ukrainians, and were further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Civilians, of all nationalities, must be protected and prioritised while politicians negotiate a swift resolution to the conflict, including a ceasefire. Humanitarian corridors need to be secured and respected to evacuate at-risk people from cities under attack and get aid supplies in to support the most vulnerable.

The reaction of countries who have welcomed refugees with open arms must be commended. But solutions can't stop at the border, the implications for internally displaced people are likely to be far-reaching and long-lasting. They need our support more than ever.

For further information, please contact: Dawn Vout, Head of External Relations