How Bad Is Ukraine’s Humanitarian Crisis a Year Later?

In Brief

How Bad Is Ukraine’s Humanitarian Crisis a Year Later?

A year after Russia’s invasion, Ukraine is suffering a catastrophic humanitarian crisis. The outflow of millions of refugees has placed a strain on neighboring countries.

Since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale military invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than eight million people have fled the country, triggering Europe’s largest refugee crisis since World War II. Nearby countries have taken in millions of displaced people, while international organizations have sent tens of billions of dollars in aid. But as the conflict continues in its second year with no end in sight, experts worry that host countries are growing fatigued.

What’s the current humanitarian crisis in Ukraine?

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According to the UN refugee agency, more than thirteen million people, or nearly a third of Ukraine’s prewar population, have been displaced since the invasion. Of that, more than five million are internally displaced, while over eight million are refugees living in neighboring countries. In comparison, the continent saw some one million refugees during the 2015 wave from Africa and the Middle East, and up to four million refugees during the Yugoslav Wars of the 1990s. As of June 2023, at least 8,983 civilians have died and 15,442 have been injured. These are only confirmed casualties; the actual figures are likely to be considerably higher. They have been concentrated in the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, collectively known as the Donbas, where fighting has been fiercest.

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Meanwhile, U.S. officials say Russian forces have forcibly transferred up to 1.6 million Ukrainian refugees to Russian territory as of July 2022. Rights groups say many were coerced into renouncing their Ukrainian nationality. Forcible transfers are a war crime under international law; Russia characterizes its actions as humanitarian evacuations.

In addition, the war has taken a tremendous toll on Ukraine’s infrastructure. Russian air strikes have hit healthcare facilities, residential neighborhoods, and power plants, leaving millions of people without electricity during the winter. Ukrainian authorities accuse Russia of destroying the Nova Kakhovka dam, which Russian officials deny. The dam’s collapse leaves hundreds of thousands of people without drinking water, threatens the nearby Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, and has triggered mass evacuations. Millions more around the country continue to have little to no access to heat, clean water, and other basic supplies. A December 2022 World Bank estimate puts the likely cost of reconstruction at up to $641 billion.

A group of refugees crosses a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, Ukraine, amid Russia’s invasion.
A group of refugees crosses a destroyed bridge as they flee the city of Irpin, Ukraine, amid Russia’s invasion. Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Health officials also remain concerned about the spread of infectious diseases given the deterioration in health-care infrastructure. They warn that COVID-19 transmission remains high, with only 38 percent of Ukrainians fully vaccinated against the disease. In the Russia-occupied city of Mariupol, officials imposed a quarantine over fears of cholera and dysentery, while the UN human rights mission in Ukraine expressed concern regarding reports that Ukrainian prisoners of war have contracted diseases including hepatitis A and tuberculosis.

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Where are refugees going?

About 2.9 million people, or 35 percent of Ukrainian refugees in Europe, have headed east to Russia. Poland, already home to an estimated 1.3 million Ukrainians (both naturalized citizens and temporary migrant workers), has welcomed the second-largest amount, at more than 1.6 million. Most of the remaining refugees have fled to the Czech Republic, Moldova, Romania, Slovakia, and other European countries, many of which already had sizable populations of Ukrainian nationals prior to the war. 

The number of refugees leaving Ukraine has slowed somewhat after peaking in March 2022; since then, nearly six million have returned home. Even so, migrant experts warn that Russia’s planned spring offensives could generate up to four million additional refugees in 2023.

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A map of how many Ukrainian refugees each country in Europe has reported, showing Russia, Poland, and Germany with the most.

How have countries responded to the crisis?

European Union (EU) officials immediately activated the bloc’s emergency Temporary Protection Directive, a never-before-used law that allows people fleeing Ukraine the right to live and work in EU states for up to three years without applying for asylum. More than 4.8 million Ukrainians are currently registered under the EU’s temporary protection or similar programs, representing 60 percent of all refugees. The bloc has also pledged over $50 billion in financial, humanitarian, and military assistance to Ukraine, which includes up to $19 billion in additional economic support in 2023.

Some European countries have set up temporary housing, hospitals, and reception centers to offer food, information, and medical supplies, while aid and civil society organizations have provided baby supplies and spare clothes. Others, such as Ireland, have waived all visa requirements for Ukrainians seeking refuge, and the Czech Republic has lifted its entry ban and COVID-19-related travel restrictions.

Still, experts are concerned about growing “refugee fatigue” in the year ahead as the war continues and Europe grapples with soaring energy prices, housing shortages, limited employment opportunities, and strained government budgets. These factors have led to increasing anti-immigrant sentiment, including anti-government protests in the Czech Republic and attacks on “welfare tourism” by some German policymakers. “The political rhetoric around immigration is escalating right now around Europe, which underscores the difficulties many member states are having coming up with coherent solutions,” Alberto-Horst Neidhardt, a migration specialist at the European Policy Centre, told the Financial Times.

The United States has provided tens of billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, accepted close to three thousand refugees through its refugee program, and made an estimated sixty thousand Ukrainian migrants eligible for temporary protected status.

What role have international organizations played?

Russia has used its veto to block UN Security Council action, but the broader UN General Assembly has expressed widespread opposition to the invasion of Ukraine. The body has passed several resolutions by large majorities, including ones that called on Russia to pay war reparations and urged countries not to recognize Putin’s annexation of four eastern Ukrainian regions.

At the same time, almost a dozen UN organizations, including the World Food Program and the World Health Organization, have provided assistance on the ground in Ukraine. In 2022, the United Nations allocated $192 million in funding to over one hundred projects through its Ukraine Humanitarian Fund, and in the coming year, the United Nations is seeking to raise an additional $5.6 billion. Likewise, the World Bank has mobilized more than $34 billion in financial support since the war broke out. 

Meanwhile, the International Criminal Court continues to investigate claims that Russian forces have committed war crimes, of which Ukrainian officials say they have documented more than sixty-six thousand incidents. Ukrainian courts have already indicted nearly ninety members of the Russian military.

Will Merrow created the graphic for this In Brief.

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