Intensive air strikes and heavy fighting in Ukraine are sparking a growing refugee crisis as more and more families leave home in search of safety. UNICEF estimates that around half of the more than 660,000 who have left in the past week, according to UNHCR's estimates, are children. Families, mostly mothers and children, are crossing into Poland, Romania, Moldova and neighboring countries. Between 3 million and 5 million more could be forced to seek refuge in the coming months.
On February 27, 2022, UNICEF Chief of Communication James Elder stood beside a river of cars stretching into the distance as Ukrainian families, exhausted with worry, made their way slowly toward the border of Poland, some 31 miles away. "This border is packed with cars that have come for days and days to get to this point," he said.
100,000 people are leaving every day as violence escalates in Ukraine
Some families were continuing their journey on foot, in freezing temperatures. One mother pushed a baby carriage along the side of the road; a little girl in a snowsuit held her older sister's hand tightly.
"Today has been a day soaked in sorrow," said Elder. "More stress and sadness than I can almost ever remember seeing." Fathers staying behind in Ukraine bid farewell to their daughters and sons as they neared the border crossing; husbands said goodbye to their wives. "Families are being separated. It's gut-wrenchingly sad."
Tearful farewells and the kindness of strangers
But amid all the sorrow, community volunteers are stepping up to distribute food and drink, look after children and otherwise assist displaced families in their flight to safety.
UNICEF is on the ground in Ukraine, working around the clock from five country offices on both sides of the contact line to scale up operations to meet the mounting needs of families in crisis. In coordination with UNHCR, UNICEF is setting up 26 Blue Dot hubs in six neighboring countries to provide urgent assistance for refugee families.
UNICEF and partners are working nonstop to deliver lifesaving services to fleeing families in Ukraine and neighboring countries
"The situation for children caught up in the conflict in Ukraine grows worse by the minute," said UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell. "We are receiving reports of hospitals, schools, water and sanitation facilities and orphanages under fire. Explosive weapons in populated areas and explosive remnants of war are real and present dangers for the children of Ukraine. Children have been killed. Children have been wounded. And children are being profoundly traumatized by the violence all around them."
UNICEF is appealing for an immediate suspension of ongoing military operations in Ukraine and calling for all parties to protect civilians and civilian infrastructure and to abide by all legal and moral obligations to keep children out of the line of fire.
"We must protect all children in Ukraine, now," said Russell, "before it is too late."
UNICEF has issued an emergency appeal to help fund its relief operations in Ukraine and neighboring countries. Help UNICEF reach the most vulnerable. Donate today.
Top photo: On February 27, 2022, as military operations continue in Ukraine, people scrambling to get their children out of harm's way walk alongside vehicles lined up to cross the border into Poland. © UNICEF/UN0598182/Moskaliuk. Video edited by Tong Su for UNICEF USA