Russian invasion of Ukraine has forced 1 million to flee, fastest refugee exodus this century: UNHCR

Some of the one million people who have fled Russia's devastating war in Ukraine in recent days are among society's most vulnerable, unable to make the decision on their own to flee and requiring careful assistance to make the journey to safety.

Bitter cold and snow making the long journeys to neighbouring countries difficult

People fleeing war-torn Ukraine get food, clothing and toiletries at Hauptbahnhof main railway station on Wednesday in Berlin, Germany. (Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images)

Some of the now one million people who have fled Russia's devastating war in Ukraine in recent days are among society's most vulnerable, unable to make the decision on their own to flee and requiring careful assistance to make the journey to safety.

At the train station in the Hungarian town of Zahony on Wednesday, more than 200 young Ukrainians — residents of two orphanages in Ukraine's capital of Kyiv — disembarked into the cold wind of the train platform after an arduous escape from the violence gripping Ukraine.

The refugees, most of them children with mental and physical disabilities, 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."

A woman from Ukraine wears a blanket while standing in a train station in Przemysl, southeastern Poland, on Wednesday. (Markus Schreiber/The Associated Press)

Russia's intensifying attack on Ukraine has forced hundreds of thousands of people to leave the country in the last six days in what one UN official predicted could become Europe's "biggest refugee crisis this century." 

The UN refugee agency said late Wednesday that one million people have now fled Ukraine since Russia's invasion last week, the swiftest exodus of refugees this century.

Chris Melzer, senior spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said some fleeing Ukraine indeed faced arduous and stressful journeys.

"It was a terrible situation for many, many refugees," Melzer told CBC News Network from Poland on Wednesday.

A girl holding a stuffed bear looks out from a train carrying refugees arriving at the Hungarian border town of Zahony on Wednesday. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The people who travelled to border areas by car faced challenges, he said, but so did those who made the same journey on foot in freezing temperatures, and many had children with them.

"The vast majority of the people we saw are indeed women and children," he said. 

WATCH | Thousands leaving Ukraine every day: 

Thousands of refugees pour into Poland from Ukraine daily

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More than half a million refugees have already streamed out of Ukraine, many to Poland, where the humanitarian strain is already showing and is only expected to get worse.

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 to deliver them from danger.

"These children need a lot of attention. They have illnesses and require special care," said Leonidovna, the director of the Kyiv orphanage.

Refugee families take a rest at the train station after arriving from the Polish Ukrainian border crossing on Wednesday, in Przemysl, Poland. (Omar Marques/Getty Images)

Moving from the train in groups of 30, the children — also from the Darnytskyy orphanage in Kyiv — were escorted to buses waiting to take them to Opole, Poland, where they would be settled and receive further care.

"There are 216 people altogether, the children along with their chaperones," said Viktoria Mikolayivna, deputy director of the Darnytskyy home.

Cold weather gripping Eastern Europe on Wednesday made conditions even harder for those fleeing.

At the border area of Palanca in southern Moldova, a country that shares a long border with Ukraine, temperatures hovered around freezing and a fresh blanket of snow covered the ground.

A refugee from Ukraine peeks out a train window as it arrives in Zahony, Hungary. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Mothers with young children came wrapped in blankets and clothing, but the cold weather has made an already desperate situation even worse.

Julia, a 32-year-old mother with a three-year-old child, tried to calm her son who was burning with fever. She felt helpless, she said, but is proud that she made the decision to help her family.

"Thank God that I can protect my family, but I didn't want to leave my country. But I had to find another way to protect my family," she told the Associated Press.

Thousands of refugees also continued to flee Ukraine into neighbouring Romania through the Siret border crossing.

Young children, hundreds from Ukrainian orphanages, are among the nearly one million people who have fled Ukraine in the past week. (Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Alina Onica, a 41-year-old Red Cross volunteer in Siret, said that the freezing weather and snow are only adding to the challenges and needs of the refugees being displaced by war.

"It made it more difficult because many left their homes a couple of days ago, and all they had was the clothes on their backs," she said. "They have been asking for gloves, hats, and blankets. It's a humanitarian crisis and we're hoping it will end soon."

Victoria Baibara, who left Kyiv two days ago with her six-year-old son after witnessing escalating bombing in the capital, arrived in Romania on Wednesday and will travel to Istanbul to stay with friends, she said.

I feel a lot of pain. … Just pain. A lot of pain for my country and my people.- Marya Unhuryan, refugee

"It's so hard, it's hard for a child. We can't explain to him why we should leave our home, why we hear these bombs," the 29-year-old said.

"He is also very scared. I am also very scared. … It's so cold and it was hard to stay with a child in the snow."

Marya Unhuryan, from Chernivsti in western Ukraine, came by car to Siret with her nine-year-old daughter and other relatives, all women.

"I feel a lot of pain. … Just pain. A lot of pain for my country and my people," she said. "She's nine years old and she does not understand the situation. She just wants to eat pizza in Italy and go to Disney in France."

WATCH | Number of people fleeing Russia's attacks approaches one million:

UN refugee agency says 874,000 Ukrainians have fled Russian invasion

2 years ago
Duration 10:02
Rema Jamous Imseis, the representative for the UN's refugee agency in Canada, says the number of Ukrainian refugees from the Russian attack could hit four million if current trends continue.

With files from CBC News