Thousands are fleeing Ukraine in ‘horrible conditions’, Unicef worker says

Aid worker recalls ‘50km stream of stress and sadness’ as Ukrainians flee invasion

Thousands of people continue to flee Ukraine in "horrible conditions" in what is fast becoming a crisis "like no other" in terms of scale, a Unicef worker in Ukraine has told The Irish Times.

James Elder crossed the Romanian border into Ukraine on Saturday and is now stationed in western Ukraine, where he will provide emergency aid with Unicef.

Speaking over the phone from Lviv, Mr Elder said he had “rarely seen anything like” the situation in his 20 years with Unicef.

“I crossed the border into Ukraine very early in the morning on Saturday, which feels like weeks ago now after everything that’s happened since, but there were still hundreds of cars queuing for many kilometres to get out,” he said.


“I’m in Lviv now, which is about 70km from the Polish border. I travelled towards the border this week to talk to families along the way but I didn’t even have to go all the way, because there were about 50km of cars trying to get out.”

People were fleeing Ukraine in "horrible conditions", he said, following the invasion of the country by Russia.

“Some have spent days in bunkers and are then travelling in cramped cars for over 24 hours or having to go on foot while it’s freezing and snowing. It’s just highly traumatising for everyone.

“It was this 50km stream of stress and sadness. Not a single person I spoke to wanted to leave. You’re seeing fathers farewelling their families, people who had to leave their loved ones behind. It’s a very difficult journey.

“We’re trying to spread emergency aid across the country now. But as long as this conflict continues, demand will inevitably oustrip supply,” Mr Elder said.

“We’re providing everything from emergency food and water to medicines and supplies like obstetric kits, because we have women giving birth in bunkers right now.”

Emergency education

“We’re also delivering emergency education for kids. Some might say that shouldn’t be a priority now, but it’s so important for kids going through a trauma like this to maintain some normalcy,” Mr Elder said.

Pop-up emergency education tents would be set up with pens and paper and toys for children to play with.

“This is just overawing completely. Every single individual story matters and has its own horrid power, whether it’s this conflict or any other, but the scale of this is just beyond what anyone expected and numbers are still growing every day.

“We’re seeing thousands trying to get onto trains in sub-zero temperatures and leaving their belongings and their loved ones behind,” he said.

Mr Elder said there had been a lot of public support shown to Unicef in recent days, but while "people from Ireland are always generous", governments now needed to "step up", he said.

Unicef Ireland executive director Peter Power said the organisation had been "inundated" with support and donations from people and companies across Ireland.

Red Cross appeal

Meanwhile, public support for the Irish Red Cross appeal for the crisis in Ukraine has reached a new high of €2.3 million in donations after opening four days ago.

Speaking to The Irish Times, Irish Red Cross secretary general Liam O’Dwyer said he was “taken aback” by the level of support from Irish people.

“People’s generosity has been absolutely extraordinary. We’ve had older people dropping into the office in person to donate money as well as people donating online,” he said.

All funds are going directly to Red Cross partners in Ukraine as well as operations at border points with neighbouring countries to assist in humanitarian efforts.

Humanitarian organisations remaining on the ground in Ukraine continued to deliver help "whenever a small window of relative security allows for humanitarian aid to be distributed", UN high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi told the UN Security Council on Monday. However, such organisations were barely able to "scratch the surface" to meet the needs of Ukrainians, he added.

The fast-rising exodus of people from Ukraine could become “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century”, Mr Grandi said.

The number who have fled Ukraine amid the Russian invasion that began last Thursday has now reached 677,000, according to Mr Grandi.