Ukrainian Refugees Flood Into Russia As Rebels Are Squeezed

People surround a clergyman reading a prayer at a temporary tent camp set up for Ukrainian refugees in the town of Novoshakhtinsk in Rostov region near the Ukrainian-Russian border, southern Russia on July 9, 2014. Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Ukrainians caught up in the government forces assault upon the secessionist rebels are fleeing in huge numbers. More than 117,000 Ukrainians have left their homes and are now on the move inside the country and more than 1,000 Ukrainians are leaving combat areas every day, according to UN estimates.

The Russian authorities say that more than 5,000 refugees every day are flooding into the Rostov region in the south of the country, putting a strain on local services and infrastructure, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, also known as the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), says that more than 168,000 people crossed the border from Ukraine into Russia in the first seven months of the year. Russian authorities say that of those fleeing Ukraine, more than 6,000 have applied for refugee status and nearly 50,000 have applied for temporary asylum.

The 168,000 who are in flight from the violence are among a larger group of 730,000 Ukrainians who have reportedly arrived in Russia this year and are living there under a system that allows citizens from certain countries to travel there without a visa. Ukrainian citizens have no set time limit under the program, according to the Russian National Tourist Office.

Data from the United Nations Refugee Agency suggests that in the past seven days more than 6,200 people have been obliged to leave their homes, Vincent Cochetel, UNHCR’s European bureau director, told reporters in Geneva on Tuesday.

"They are not tourists," Cochetel said during the press briefing. "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."

In June, around 2,600 people fled their homes in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. Within two months, on August 1, that number had jumped to 102,600, the United Nations Refugee Agency says. The organization is now calling on the Ukrainian government to establish a register of its internally displaced people as the numbers fleeing the war between Kiev  government forces and the separatists are expected to rise.

Basic services and infrastructure have been heavily affected by the increased violence, with scarcity of drinking water becoming increasingly common,” the UN says, adding that as the temporary accommodation they are sheltering has not been winterized, the onset of colder weather will make matters far worse.  

Violence in eastern Ukraine has escalated since Russia annexed Crimea by stealth in March, killing 1,150 people, Deutsche-Welle reports. What was a conflict confined to the eastern Ukraine and Russia borderlands became an international crisis in July when Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine by pro-Russian separatists, killing all 298 on board. Relatives and crash investigators were forbidden from gaining access to the crash site and to the bodies and remains of the victims by pro-Russian rebels operating in the area, illustrating to the world just how tense and deadly the situation has become to the normal conventions of civilized life.

Tuesday saw a new buildup of Russian troops along the border with Ukraine, sparking concerns the another Russian invasion similar to the annexation of Crimea may be imminent, CNN reports. There are now around 20,000 Russian troops strung along the border with eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, Ukrainian security officials said they are planning an imminent “massive assault” on the rebel stronghold of Donetsk.

The fear of becoming caught in the crossfire as Ukrainian troops clash with pro-Russia rebels is one of the main reasons people are fleeing the area, the UN reports. Other reasons include fears of persecution over their political views or ethnicity and fear of abduction, harassment and extortion.

The UN also notes that thousands have been returning to their homes in areas the Ukrainian government has regained from the rebels, including 20,000 people who have gone back to Slavyansk in eastern Ukraine since July 5.

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