Amid rising international tension over Ukraine, the United Nations’ refugee agency said Tuesday that the fighting there had displaced more than a million people and warned of “devastating consequences” if it did not end soon.
The number of people that the agency officially counts as displaced inside Ukraine has nearly doubled in the past three weeks, to 260,000, but the actual number is much higher because many of those fleeing are staying with families and friends, Adrian Edwards, a spokesman for the refugee agency, told reporters in Geneva.
Many more have been forced out of Ukraine, including about 814,000 people who Russia says have crossed the border since the start of the year. Tens of thousands of other Ukrainians have moved to other European countries to escape the conflict or left for vacations or family visits and opted not to return.
“It’s safe to say you now have over a million people displaced as a result of the crisis,” said Vincent Cochetel, director of the refugee agency’s European bureau.
The Ukrainian authorities say about 2.2 million people are still living in conflict areas, the agency reported.
Antonio Guterres, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said in a statement: “If the crisis is not quickly stopped, it will have not only devastating humanitarian consequences, but it also has the potential to destabilize the whole region.” He added, “After the lessons of the Balkans, it is hard to believe a conflict of these proportions could unfold in the European continent.”
His warning came as Ukraine’s defence minister, Valeriy Heletey, warned of a “great war” of a sort unseen since the Second World War and as armies on both sides of the conflict reviewed their military postures. NATO powers, preparing for a two-day summit meeting in Wales starting Thursday, said they would reinforce their presence in Eastern Europe, and Russia responded that it would review its military strategy to counter the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s “policy of aggravating tensions with Russia.”
The UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, on Monday reminded Western powers that there would be no military solution to the crisis, calling instead for political dialogue.
Almost all of those displaced inside Ukraine so far were from eastern regions that are at the centre of the battle between the authorities in Kiev and Russian-backed rebels. But the refugee agency said that about 10,000 people had fled from the port city of Mariupol in the past week, when increased military activity around the town of Novoazovsk to the east raised fears that Russia and the rebels were opening a new front.
Of the Ukrainians entering Russia, more than half a million had crossed its western border, taking advantage of a nine-month, visa-free stay allowance; about 260,000 had applied for some form of refugee status.
Estonian officials have estimated that 20,000 Ukrainians are now in their country, and Mr. Cochetel said thousands more were believed to be in the other Baltic states, together with Poland, Finland and Sweden.
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