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More than 3 million refugees flee Ukraine

While many Ukrainians stay to fight, several million Ukrainians have fled their country, mostly to Poland, since Russia's invasion last month.

Ukrainian firefighters check damage from a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv
Ukrainian firefighters check damage from a Russian rocket attack in Kyiv (AN/Ukrainian Police Department Press Service)

GENEVA (AN) — More than 3 million Ukrainians have fled their country, mostly to Poland, from the Russian invasion in an exodus that is unusually quick, the U.N. refugee agency said on Thursday.

Ukrainian fighters led by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy have been offering tough resistance that appears to have slowed the Russian invasion. Hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians have fled their homes amid Russia's multi-pronged invasion of the democratic country of 44 million people, according to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR.

More than half of the 3.1 million refugees, or 1.8 million, are in Poland, while the rest have fled to other European nations, primarily Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia and Belarus, UNHCR reported in its dashboard on the exodus from Ukraine since February 24.

The U.N. refugee agency has launched an emergency appeal for US$1.7 billion in humanitarian support to people in Ukraine and refugees in neighbouring countries. The head of UNHCR, Filippo Grandi, noted that 1 million fled Ukraine in just the first week of the war.

"I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years, and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one," he said. "Unless there is an immediate end to the conflict, millions more are likely to be forced to flee Ukraine."

Grandi said that as air strikes and shelling intensify in Ukraine, more people seek shelter away from their homes. "The Ukrainian authorities, brave citizens and humanitarian agencies help as they can, in spite of huge risks," he said. "Targeting civilian people and structures violates international law."

The U.N. human rights office said it had recorded the deaths of at least 1,900 civilian casualties in Ukraine as of Wednesday. Those include 726 people killed and 1,174 injured, but it cautions that "actual figures are considerably higher, especially in government-controlled territory and especially in recent days, as the receipt of information from some locations where intense hostilities have been going on has been delayed and many reports are still pending corroboration."

"Most of the civilian casualties recorded were caused by the use of explosive weapons with a wide impact area, including shelling from heavy artillery and multiple-launch rocket systems, and missile and air strikes," the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, or OHCHR, said.

'Everthing is a target'

As the war enters a fourth week, Ukraine's defenses succeeded in slowing down Russia's advances outside major cities, where residents suffered shelling from afar.

A Russian airstrike pounded Mariupol’s Drama Theater sheltering hundreds of people that put a sign on its roof to indicate the presence of children in the southern city along the Sea of Azov's coast.

The theater was still standing, and some of the people escaped but the extent of casualties was unknown, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a televised address on Wednesday. Another airstrike buried women and children at a swimming pool complex.

"Everything is a target for them," Zelenskyy said of Russia's attack on Mariupol in a televised address to German lawmakers.

The governor of the northern city of Chernihiv, Viacheslav Chaus, told Ukrainian TV that Russian artillery and airstrikes caused massive losses and destruction from Russian artillery and air strikes, killing at least 53 people whose bodies were taken to city morgues. He said civilians took shelter below ground without utilities.

Ukraine has demanded a cease-fire and the withdrawal of Russian troops during talks by video between Ukrainian and Russian diplomats. Russia has declared two regions of Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists to be independent and expanded the borders of those regions.