Three million Ukraine refugees flee in freezing conditions, scarred by trauma

Charities are finding that older people and children are particularly vulnerable

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Three weeks into the Russian war on Ukraine and the number of those fleeing has exceeded three million, with organisations on the ground warning that their plight is worsening by the day.

The Disasters Emergency Committee, a coalition of 15 leading UK aid charities brought together at times of crisis overseas, says the “nature of the refugee crisis is changing” as the conflict spreads across Ukraine, deepening the need for humanitarian aid.

“The first wave of people who fled the conflict in Ukraine mostly had connections and relatives in neighbouring countries,” said Madara Hettiarachchi, the DEC’s Director of Humanitarian Programmes and Accountability.

“Now the people escaping have few family ties, have nowhere to go and are deeply traumatised from what they have seen and experienced. We are also seeing an increase in the number of unaccompanied children, and we can only imagine the fear and turmoil they are feeling.”

Ms Hettiarachchi said worsening violence means more of the refugees are people fleeing rapidly with few possessions. She warned that local capacity for receiving refugees is also struggling to keep up with the numbers arriving.

“The needs of these refugees is potentially far more acute as they have fled later, with fewer possessions and less resources. They are living in crowded temporary accommodation and need basic necessities — food and water. As the crisis unfolds, and the humanitarian needs deepen, the work of DEC charities is needed more than ever,” said Ms Hettiarachchi.


DEC member charities are finding that the elderly and children are particularly vulnerable, and many older people are caring for the very young.

In Moldova, the situation is acute as the country has the highest number of refugees per capita, with 230,000 in a population of 2.6 million.

Two minutes to leave their home

Dan Stewart from Save the Children, which is working inside Ukraine and neighbouring countries to help provide children and families with immediate aid, said there were already worrying signs of the psychological impact on refugees, children in particular.

“One of the biggest fears for children coming across the border is the long-term impact of the horrendous and traumatic experiences they've been through,” he said.

“A mum told me that she and her three kids had had two minutes, literally two minutes, to leave their home when one of their friends suddenly had a car that could take them to the border. Two minutes to abandon your entire life and leave your home behind. Her nine-year-old daughter was really quiet and withdrawn and her mum said that sometimes she just starts crying.

“Children are incredibly resilient and they can bounce back from so much, but they need help. And that’s why we’re scaling up rapidly across the region to make sure that more and more children get the emotional support they need to recover.”

Children in 'serious distress'

Plan International’s Global Lead for Child Protection Emergencies, Anita Queirazza, has been meeting refugees in Romania. She had similar concerns.

“Children have experienced serious distress, some of them have witnessed direct violence,” she said. “Others, even if they haven’t experienced direct violence, they have experienced disruptive changes in their family or in their community, they had to flee their home, they are separated from their families.

“Children may have a lot of questions at the moment, and they might have trouble sleeping at night, they might have nightmares so it’s really important that parents know how to support children at such a difficult time, as children might display different behavioural reactions,” says Ms Queirazza.

Plan International has sent urgent response teams to Moldova, Romania and Poland to begin understanding how to best support children by working with local organisations.

Refugees 'traumatised and unsure'

Caritas Poland, the largest charity in the country, said the “fastest-growing group” of people fleeing were those who had stayed in Ukraine “until they really had no choice but to run”.

“People who evacuated in a matter of minutes,” said Natasza Bogacz of the charity. “And they very often have no onward destination, nowhere to go. This seems to be the fastest-growing group. It’s hard because we don't really know what's going to happen to them, especially the older people. Many of them are very vulnerable and weak, but also they're often in a very bad psychological state. Many of them have never been outside Ukraine before. They don't understand why this is happening.”

Tatiana Sorocan, country director at HelpAge Moldova, a partner of Age International, said older refugees were struggling with “chaos and uncertainty” with their needs changing daily.

“They are traumatised and unsure about their future, or their next moves,” she said. “We are working hard to give them a sense of stability, while looking after their basic needs. Our primary focus is to ensure that they and those they are travelling with have enough cash to be able to buy essentials like food, medication, or warm clothes to protect them against the harsh conditions.

“Many of the older people we are meeting are travelling with children. This caregiver role is crucial to the stability of refugee families and means that they need money and aid to support younger members of their family too.”

Age International is working inside Ukraine through local partners and in neighbouring countries to support older people. It is providing emergency food and water kits, medical, hygiene and dignity kits.

The DEC Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal has raised £175 million to help people fleeing the conflict both inside Ukraine and on its borders, including £25 million matched by the UK government.

Updated: March 15, 2022, 3:21 PM