More than 700,000 people have left Ukraine for Russia during the country’s four months of conflict. In addition, 117,000 people have become displaced within Ukraine, according to the UN’s refugee agency.
Raising a previous estimate by 500,000 people, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees announced Tuesday that fewer than 168,000 of those who entered Russia had applied for asylum after fleeing Ukraine, where fighting has left 1,150 people dead since mid-April.
Despite the low number of official refugees, the UNHCR derived the figure of 730,000 from Russian statistics and the agency's own analysis.
"They are not tourists," Vincent Cochetel, the UNHCR's European director, told a news briefing on Tuesday. "We've seen them at the border, just like in any other conflict. They walk, sometimes they just walk across the border. They come with plastic bags. Many of them are really destitute."
Following an appeal by the army to leave, more people have fled the biggest rebel stronghold of Donetsk, where fighting intensified over the weekend. A week of combat in the separatists' second-largest bastion, Luhansk, has put an end to municipal rubbish collection and, more importantly, left 250,000 people without water, electricity, internet or telephone, according to local authorities.
Human Rights Watch reports that separatists have targeted medical workers. In a statement Tuesday, HRW reported that separatists had "threatened medical staff, stolen and destroyed medical equipment and hospital furniture, and compromised the ability of civilian patients to receive treatment." HRW also accuses separatists of commandeering ambulances to carry fighters.
"Civilians are already bearing the brunt of the conflict in eastern Ukraine," HRW researcher Yulia Gorbunova said. "Interfering with the medical assistance they need is simply unconscionable."
Despite the heavy combat nearby, 110 experts from the Netherlands, Australia and Malaysia continue searching for victims' remains at the crash site of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17. The United States and its allies have accused Russia of providing the separatists with surface-to-air missiles that they may have used to accidentally shoot down the Malaysia Airlines passenger jet on July 17, killing all 298 people on board.
On Tuesday, Ukrainian security spokesman Andriy Lysenko said that fighting had left three Ukrainian soldiers dead and 46 injured within the past 24 hours. Ukraine's military has also warned that Russia has massed about 45,000 troops along the border.
Russia has meanwhile released more than 300 Ukrainian troops who crossed the border Monday.
mkg/tj (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)