Ukraine’s humanitarian exodus is largest since World War II

Special to

By John J. Metzler

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has triggered a rising tsunami of refugees fleeing their beleaguered homeland and heading for neighboring Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.

As the winds of war sweep across the Ukrainian steppe, this growing humanitarian wave of civilians, young and old with legions of children among them, have headed for safety. More than two million civilians have now fled their country in the first two weeks of fighting.

Refugees from Ukraine at the Korczowa border crossing, Poland, on Feb. 26, 2022. / Video Image

We have seen this all before, albeit it in slower motion in war torn Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq, Congo and so many other places which are etched into the headlines only to be supplanted by yet another, often more horrible tragedy.

Europe’s most recent refugee exoduses came from the bloody Balkan wars during the 1990’s following the breakup of Yugoslavia and the painful aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian revolution.

Now Poland, Hungary and Slovakia have opened their hearts and homes to the displaced Ukrainians; many of the refugees have already headed for Germany, France, the UK as well as the United States and Canada. Many will indeed return home to Ukraine if and when the time is right, but in the meantime they need refuge from the Russian Bear.

The UN Security Council has addressed this clear and present danger to stability, especially relating to a growing humanitarian wave. The alphabet soup of global relief agencies has gone into overdrive to help Ukraine. There’s an amazing outpouring of support thus far.

The UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has launched an emergency appeal for US$1.7 billion to urgently deliver humanitarian support to people in Ukraine and refugees; “The UN estimates that 12 million people inside Ukraine will need relief and protection, while more than 4 million Ukrainian refugees may need protection and assistance in neighboring countries in the coming months.”

This presents a stunning humanitarian and security challenge for Europe, despite NATO’s unprecedented political unity.

An exasperated Martin Griffiths, the UN Emergency Relief Coordinator told the Security Council, “We already had enough on our hands, many other unnecessary and unwanted conflicts leaving misery in their wake … We had no need for another war.”  He lamented, “Simply put, millions of lives have been shattered.”

American UN Amb. Linda Thomas-Greenfield said that she’s increasingly concerned about civilian protection, especially women, and girls affected by “Putin’s war.”

Apartment buildings, villages, hospitals and civic centers have been wantonly targeted by the Russian military causing deliberate grief and fear. Civilian causalities are mounting.

But this tragedy is not entirely new. In 2014 Russia began to dismember sovereign Ukraine and detach the Donbas and Luhansk with pseudo-republics and more significantly seized Crimea.

UN relief agencies have been feeding and caring for 1.5 million Ukrainian civilians displaced by the fighting which has droned on for the past eight years, largely unnoticed by the outside world.

Now Vladimir Putin’s massive military invasion of all Ukraine, has thrown new light and urgency to a simmering conflict and unleashed calamitous carnage in a country the size of France, known as the breadbasket of Europe.

Putin’s war has come to Ukraine and through its invasion of a sovereign country, has now unleashed the largest single refugee exodus since the Second World War!

As strange and surrealistic as it may seem, my calendar says 2022, not 1942.

UK UN Amb. Barbara Woodward stated poignantly, “Putin is directing a campaign of violence and cruelty against civilians.”  Then speaking directly to the Russian representative, she beseeched, “Vassily Alekseevich … The great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Man is given not only one life, but also one conscience’.” She implored the Russian delegate to “report faithfully back to Moscow what you have heard today.”

The UN’s Martin Griffiths stated, “above all, the parties must take constant care to spare civilians and civilian homes and infrastructure in their military operations. This includes allowing safe passage for civilians to leave areas of active hostilities.” Russia has often blocked establishing secure humanitarian corridors for fleeing civilians.

Ukraine’s UN Amb. Sergiy Kyslytsya underscored the international community is “responding to the worst humanitarian crisis we have ever seen since the end of the Second World War in Europe.”

Importantly there’s an urgency for an immediate ceasefire to mitigate causalities and damage. This is a key first step.  Moreover, there’s a very real potential for the conflict spilling over from Ukraine into a wider war through design, miscalculation or blunder with a nuclear armed Russia.

Thus, military deescalation and political decompression through focused diplomacy becomes crucial before the crisis spreads any farther beyond Ukraine’s borders and deeper into Europe.

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]