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The number of people who have fled Ukraine following Russia's offensive topped one million on Wednesday, UN’s refugee chief Filippo Grandi said on Twitter, as Russian forces kept up their bombardment of Ukraine's second-biggest city Kharkiv and laid siege to two strategic seaports.
The tally from the UN refugee agency released to AP amounts to more than two per cent of Ukraine’s population being forced out of the country in less than a week, the swiftest refugee exodus this century.
The mass evacuation could be seen in Kharkiv, where residents desperate to get away from falling shells and bombs crowded the city’s train station, not always knowing where they were headed.
In the Hungarian town of Zahony on Wednesday, more than 200 Ukrainians with disabilities – residents of two care homes in Ukraine’s capital Kyiv – disembarked into the cold wind on a train station platform after an arduous escape from the violence gripping Ukraine.
The refugees, many of them children, have serious mental and physical disabilities, and were evacuated from their care facilities once the Russian assault on the capital intensified.
“It wasn’t safe to stay there, there were rockets, they were shooting at Kyiv,” said Larissa Leonidovna, the director of the Svyatoshinksy orphanage in Kyiv. “We spent more than an hour underground during a bombing.”
Russia’s intensifying attack on Ukraine has forced one million people to leave in what one UN official predicted could become Europe’s “biggest refugee crisis this century”.
The exodus tallied early Thursday by the UN refugee agency after one week of Russian fighting is without precedent in this century for its speed and amounted to more than two per cent of Ukraine’s population.
More than half of the refugees – nearly 505,000 – have gone to Poland, while more than 116,300 have entered Hungary and 79,300-plus have crossed into Moldova, according to earlier figures. Another 71,000 have fled to Slovakia, and some 69,600 have gone to other European countries.
While many of those fleeing are able-bodied adults, choosing to brave long and sometimes dangerous journeys to bring themselves and their families to safety, others are at the mercy of their caregivers.
“These children need a lot of attention, they have illnesses and require special care,” said Ms Leonidovna.
EU prepares for millions of refugees from Ukraine
The EU must prepare for the arrival of millions of refugees as they flee war in Ukraine, the bloc's top home affairs official said on Thursday, adding that she expected governments to agree on a temporary protection scheme in the coming days.
The bloc's interior ministers were set to agree in principle at a meeting on Thursday to automatically grant those fleeing Ukraine a residence permit and access to employment, social welfare and housing for up to three years, they said.
"(Russian President Vladimir) Putin's terrible war of aggression has had terrible consequences for people in Ukraine," German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said as she arrived at the Brussels meeting.
At least 227 civilians have been killed and another 525 wounded since the invasion began, according to the latest figures from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Earlier, Ukraine said more than 2,000 civilians have died, a figure yet to be independently verified.
Still, the tally eclipses the entire civilian casualty count from the fighting in 2014 in eastern Ukraine between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian forces, which left 136 dead and 577 injured.