‘Nightmarish’: Putin’s War in Ukraine Has Created Tens of Thousands of Refugees

And the UN predicts that up to 5 million people could ultimately leave Ukraine.
A woman is crying while waiting for her relatives from Ukraine at a train station at the Polish border. Photo: Peter Lazar/AFP via Getty

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has already triggered an exodus of refugees, sending tens of thousands of desperate people seeking shelter in neighbouring countries.

At least 100,000 Ukrainians are estimated to have been driven from their homes by the conflict so far, according to the UN Refugee Agency, with tens of thousands – the exact numbers are still unclear – having fled across the border to countries such as Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. 


European countries, bracing for an influx of refugees, have said they stand ready to welcome Ukrainians fleeing the Russian assault, but that may prove a formidable challenge. Shabia Mantoo, global spokesperson for the UN Refugee Agency, told VICE World News on Friday that her organisation projected that if the situation escalates further, it could create up to 4 million refugees.

An estimate from UNICEF, the United Nations Children's Fund, was even higher, projecting the conflict could create up to five million refugees – in line with a warning from the US ambassador to the United Nations earlier this week.

"We are looking at ranges of one to 3 million [refugees] into Poland, for example ... A scenario of one to 5 million including all surrounding countries," Afshan Khan, UNICEF’s regional director for Europe and Central Asia, told a UN briefing in Geneva on Friday.

Already, the Russian invasion has led to harrowing scenes in the border regions with neighbouring countries.

One witness, who made a 20-hour trip by foot, bus and taxi from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv into Poland on Thursday described encountering “tragic” conditions along his journey: cars driven until they ran out of petrol, crushes of people at the border gate, families separated as fighting-age men were turned around and sent into battle.


“It was heartbreaking,” Manny Marotta, a 25-year-old American freelance journalist from Pittsburgh, told VICE World News from the Polish city of Przemyśl, where he had arrived early Friday morning.

“There were elderly people and children who were having to carry heavy bags with the entire possessions of these families. These people were despondent, confused. There was a lot of crying, a lot of asking questions,” he said.

Marotta, who had left his job as a museum tour guide to travel to Ukraine a week and a half ago with the aim of reporting on the war, instead found himself fleeing Lviv for the Polish border on Thursday. He travelled a distance of about 70 kilometres to the border, first by bus, then taxi, then a lengthy stretch on foot.

He said he was about 20-30kms from the border crossing at Medyka when he started to feel as though he was part of a “refugee caravan.”

“We hit a point where the cars were gridlocked and there was no movement whatsoever because cars up ahead had run out of petrol,” he said.

“People were abandoning their cars, leaving them behind and carrying what they could, and walking to the border.”

Among those making the trip were a number of elderly people, some of whom were being pushed in wheelchairs. 

Adding to the trauma for the fleeing families were the Ukrainian soldiers separating the men aged 18-60 from their families, and ordering them instead back to the east to join in the battle. The soldiers were acting on a general mobilisation decree signed by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Thursday, which prohibited men aged 18-60 from leaving the country.


“The Ukrainian soldiers were… pulling people aside and saying, ‘Are you 18-60, are you Ukrainian? Forget your wives, your girlfriends, your children - go east and fight,’” said Marotta.

“You saw a lot of mothers with their children terrified about what to do. It’s like a Titanic situation - women and children only. All the men to the war.”

At the border crossing itself, he said, the scene was even more grim.

He estimated thousands were gathered there, waiting in the dark for hours, without toilets, shelter, food or water, as they waited to be processed and allowed through the crossing. 

“It was extremely desperate, people were pressing against each other trying to get through,” he said. “There was a human crush.”

He said that once they eventually crossed the border, they were treated with professionalism by Polish authorities, who then bused them to the nearby city of Przemyśl, where Marotta was still trying to arrange accommodation when he spoke to VICE World News. 

He did not know how the Ukrainian women, children and elderly people who had crossed the border alongside him were being provided for, but his “nightmarish” experience underlined that the Ukrainians being made refugees by the conflict urgently need the support of the international community.

European nations – even those whose leaders, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Czech President Milos Zeman, have cultivated strong ties with the Kremlin – have condemned Russia’s aggression and vowed to support Ukrainians fleeing the invasion.


That’s seen countries mobilise to prepare to receive large numbers of refugees, with beds, troops, transport and other aid to house the anticipated influx from Ukraine, whose population of 44 million makes it larger than its western neighbours.

Moldova said Friday it had received nearly 16,000 refugees since the invasion began, while Romania said about 10,000 Ukrainians had fled across the border.

Even the populist-led Central European governments that have been broadly hostile to migrants from the Middle East and Africa in recent years have made clear that they will welcome Ukrainian refugees – seeking to distinguish them as “legitimate” refugees, as opposed to the previous waves of migrants they have rebuffed. Slovakia’s defence minister, Jaro Nad, told Al Jazeera ahead of the invasion that Slovakia would be opening its gates “not to economic refugees or migrants, but war refugees.”

Central Europe is already estimated to be home to more than 2 million Ukrainians, largely drawn by economic opportunities outside their homeland.