More than 7 million people have fled across borders to seek safety since Russia deployed its military into neighboring Ukraine on February 24. Bombs and shelling have continued, deliberately targeting homes and civilian infrastructure in what could become the worst humanitarian crisis Europe has seen in decades. Ukrainian territorial gains in mid-September have exposed large-scale damages and an extreme need for humanitarian support in regions formerly held by Russian forces.

Russia has since ordered its first mobilization of 300,000 reservist troops since World War II. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) calls for an immediate ceasefire, warning that further escalation of the conflict will drive up humanitarian needs and displace even more people from their homes.

In order to preserve human life and dignity in Ukraine, the violence must end. World leaders must also ensure that international humanitarian law is upheld and that humanitarian actors are protected and maintain access to help those in need.

The IRC has been the ground in Poland and Ukraine since February 2022, working directly with our partners to reach those most in need. This includes providing critical information, cash support, medical supplies and other essential needs. Within Ukraine, we are urgently preparing our winter response, anticipating that millions could lose access to electricity, water and shelter as the cold weather approaches.

What is happening in Ukraine?

Over 5,200 civilians have been reported killed in the Russian attacks. Approximately 6.5 million people have reportedly been displaced within the country with an additional 7.6 forced to flee into neighboring Moldova, Poland and other European states. Most of those who have left the country are women and children.

Public infrastructure has also been destroyed, meaning millions of people are without adequate water, heat and electricity, or are unable to reach stores to buy basic necessities because roads and bridges are unpassable. With Ukraine’s cold winter months approaching, families are seeking shelter in damaged buildings not suited to deal with sudden drops of temperature or heavy snowfall.

The country’s health system is crumbling as hospitals begin to run out of medicine and electricity is cut. Health facilities, including a maternity and children's hospital, have also been damaged during the invasion—anothergrave breach of international humanitarian law.

IRC staff and hospital staff are moving many IRC boxes full of helpful supplies.
Staff of a medical facility in Zaporizhia, Ukraine work to distribute medical supplies provided by the IRC.

Ukraine was shaken by conflict even before the recent invasion: In 2014, Russia invaded and subsequently annexed the Crimean Peninsula and began backing pro-Russian separatists in parts of eastern Ukraine. Fighting has been raging in these areas over the past eight years, killing over 3,000 people, displacing more than 850,000 from their homes, and leaving almost 3 million in need of humanitarian aid.

What has caused the escalation in tensions between Ukraine and Russia?

Ukraine—which declared itself an independent country in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union—has been forming closer ties with the European Union and with NATO. Russia, however, sees these ties as an economic and strategic threat to its own security.

What has war meant for Ukraine?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has caused the fastest displacement crisis seen in Europe since World War II and may cause more human suffering than the continent has seen this century. The world is bearing witness to the deaths of innocent civilians, the destruction of homes and infrastructure, and massive displacement of families within Ukraine and beyond.

The 6.5 million internally displaced Ukrainians are increasingly vulnerable as the war continues and they face the coming winter months. At particular risk are those seeking shelter in buildings that lack electricity or water, or that have been damaged by the war.

Economy in decline

Further violence will devastate Ukraine’s already weakened infrastructure. The country’s health system, reeling from COVID-19, is fragile, and its economy has declined drastically. Food and fuel shortages are likely to be acute, public services rendered nonfunctioning.

Refugees at risk

As attacks continue to target civilians, many more Ukrainians are being displaced from their homes, both within their country and across borders. The conflict has displaced over 7 million refugees so far. They join a record 31.7 million refugees and asylum seekers across the world.

Also at particular risk are the refugees Ukraine hosts from other countries such as Afghanistan and Belarus.

The impacts on women and girls

The majority of the over 7 million refugees who have fled Ukraine are women and children. Along with women displaced within Ukraine, they are at grave risk of violence, exploitation and abuse.

Women and girls impacted by the crisis are also increasingly unable to reach the emergency medical services, basic health care, and social services they need. If the crisis continues to shut down essential services, women will give birth without access to critical maternal health care. For them, childbirth could be a life-threatening experience.

The IRC is calling for international donors and world leaders to prioritize support and protection services for women and girls. This means listening to Ukrainian women and girls themselves and including women’s rights organizations in all affected countries in coordinating and implementing the humanitarian response.

What are the impacts on the rest of the world?

Given the importance of Ukraine wheat and grain exports, the conflict has had catastrophic impacts on many regions already facing conflict and crises.

The United Nations recently announced that “famine is at the door” in Somalia as the disruption in food supply and a severe drought ravage East Africa. Over 14 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya are already on the verge of starvation—about half of them children. That number could rise to 20 million if the world fails to take urgent action.

The Sahel region of Africa is experiencing its highest levels of severe food insecurity since 2014. Up to 18 million people are experiencing severe hunger.

In the Middle East, the war in Ukraine has sent prices of wheat and fuel spiraling. Syrian refugees are among the hardest hit, as many do not have the incomes to cover the dramatically increased cost of living.

Learn more about how the war in Ukraine impacts the rest of the world.

What can Western leaders and the humanitarian community do?

People impacted by the conflict in Ukraine must be protected.

The IRC strongly backs the United Nation Secretary General’s call to protect civilians. The UN Charter must be respected and international humanitarian law must be followed including the protection of schools and hospitals. People must be allowed to move freely, and aid agencies must be granted access to those in need of assistance.

At the same time, the world must prepare for the worst and ensure relief services inside and outside Ukraine have the funds they need to save lives and alleviate suffering. European countries must welcome their neighbors fleeing Ukraine by keeping borders open, providing adequate reception support, and ensuring full access to asylum.

Finally, even as there has rightly been a global outpouring of support for people fleeing Ukraine, the IRC is calling for equal empathy to be shown for refugees and displaced people in many other crises around the world including Afghanistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Yemen and Syria. These countries too are in need of life-saving funds and an end to persistent conflicts.

What the European Union must do

European states are taking the right steps to prepare for people forced to flee. However, these efforts must be rapidly ramped up and translated into meaningful and concrete support. States must ensure safe passage and access to their territory, and adequately prepare for a humane and effective response. They must also stand with and provide support to Ukraine's other neighbors who are welcoming refugees at their borders.

And, most importantly, Europe must not just offer protection to Ukrainian nationals who have visa-free access to the European Union, but to people of all citizenships and nationalities arriving from Ukraine who face grave dangers as the conflict escalates.

“Discrimination and unfair treatment of refugees is always intolerable, but it is especially so when conflict is intensifying in urban areas and violations of international humanitarian law are mounting by the hour," said IRC president and CEO David Miliband.

Seeking asylum is a human right, and it is our moral imperative to give refuge to those fleeing for their lives no matter their race, religion, color or creed.

“Seeking asylum is a human right, and it is our moral imperative to give refuge to those fleeing for their lives no matter their race, religion, color or creed.”

How is the IRC helping?

The IRC is working with local partners in Poland, Ukraine and Moldova. Working with partners allows us to bolster the crisis response of people who have already been active in the community and are experts on the local context. Our vital services include cash assistance, mental health support, and safe healing and learning spaces for children.

In Ukraine in particular, we are urgently preparing for our winter response. In areas most heavily affected by the conflict, especially in the east, temperatures are expected to drop to well below zero fahrenheit in the winter months. In many of these areas there will be limited or no access to electricity or gas for heating. Together with our partners, we are identifying communities most in need and planning how we can best respond.

Learn more about how the IRC helps people impacted by the war.