As Privileged Flee Ukraine First, Border Aid Groups Fear Worst Days Ahead

Over half a million people have fled across the Ukrainian border in search of safety in Poland and the greater European Union, the United Nations announced today. And while the bulk of these people are arriving without severe injury or dire bodily needs, humanitarian aid organizations fear the situation will only get worse.

As Ukraine has proven to Russia that it will stand its ground and fight, President Vladimir Putin has ramped up his offensive arsenal, sending a 40-mile-long military convoy toward Kyiv, the capital city, and increasing its military fire aimed at residential areas in a bid to conquer the nation's resilient cities.

The increased fire power and onslaught of Russian forces could very well force more Ukrainians to consider leaving their country, and some may be pushed to do so in a hurry. If this happens, Stefan Lehmeier, deputy director of Europe programming at the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a global relief NGO, fears the stable situation could begin to look like a humanitarian crisis.

"I think that in the coming days and weeks, when people finally make it to one of the borders, they will be in less good shape," Lehmeier told Newsweek. "We don't see people dying or being in severe conditions."

"But having said that, the people that we've seen over the last few days were the very first ones leaving," he added. "With every day now that's going by, it seems that some of the tactics of the warring parties, especially from the Russian side, are becoming more violent."

A woman with two children walks on a street to leave Ukraine after crossing the Slovak-Ukrainian border in Ubla, eastern Slovakia on February 25, 2022. Men aged 18 to 60 are instructed to stay in the country. Photo by PETER LAZAR/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to the escalating violence, Lehmeier notes that many of the people arriving at the border come with few resources, leaving them hungry and cold as they wait in long lines to cross into safety. However, he said many of these people are likely the more privileged members of Ukrainian society.

In a broad sense, Lehmeier said the first people to leave a crisis situation are those with the most resources who have the greatest number of options in how and when they may choose to leave. Once those with less money and connections are pushed out of the country, Lehmeier said the situation at the border is likely to become more dire.

To prepare for the expected increase in refugees, Lehmeier said the IRC is working with its local partners to provide cash assistance, information services, and protection against exploitation and violence.

Similarly, the international NGO Save the Children is working to support the refugees by providing humanitarian supplies, psychological services, cash assistance, as well as its signature offerings of providing spaces to protect children, one of the most prominent demographic groups at the borders.

"Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are asked to stay behind, so what we're seeing come across is mostly women and children," Janti Soeripto, CEO of Save the Children, told Newsweek.

They too will arrive in ever dire conditions as the war rages on.

"It always becomes harder and harder for the people who are left behind," she said, "and the local economy is also imploding, so everything becomes more difficult."

The people of Ukraine have suffered under the threat of war or open warfare since 2014. Here, a displaced woman and a young boy sit in a bus before fleeing the Ukrainian city of Debaltseve, in the Donetsk region, on February 1, 2015. Photo by MANU BRABO/AFP via Getty Images

A decline in the Ukrainian economy coupled with an attack on critical infrastructure would tighten access to adequate, food, water, and shelter, putting children at increased risk. Soeripto notes that Russian forces have hit schools and hospitals, both places where children are generally at greater risk, she said.

Parents, who otherwise may have chosen to stay in their country could flock to the borders in search of security for their children. This could provide them with greater safety, yet, Soeripto notes, there they will likely be stripped away from their other family members while being left to process the horrifying images of war.

"Our founder over 100 years ago, famously said, 'Every war is waged against the child,' and I think that that is sadly still very true," Soeripto told Newsweek. "Children always bear the brunt of negative consequences of any conflict."

Psychologically, they're seeing things that no child should ever see, that most adults would have trouble processing," she said. "So we're concerned. We're concerned about a whole generation having a long-lasting impact of this trauma."