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Russia-Ukraine war: More than 1.5 million refugees have fled Ukraine, UN says

UN High Commissioner for Refugees says exodus is fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since Second World War
A man holds his child as families who fled Ukraine due to the Russian invasion wait to enter a refugee camp in the Moldovan capital Chisinau on 3 March 2022 (AFP)

More than 1.5 million refugees from Ukraine have crossed into neighbouring countries in the space of 10 days, the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi tweeted on Sunday.

Grandi is currently visiting countries that border Ukraine, including the small, western-leaning former Soviet republic of Moldova.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday pledged Washington's support for Moldova, a country of 2.6 million people, which is also coping with an influx of refugees from Ukraine.

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He met with senior Moldovan officials who are appealing for international assistance in dealing with more than 120,000 refugees as well as security reassurances against potential Russian aggression.

Grandi had earlier tweeted about the scenes he had witnessed on the border between Ukraine and Moldova, referencing the many "stories of separation, anguish and loss" he had heard and expressing "respect" for Moldovan officials helping refugees.

Blinken said that Moldova's welcoming of refugees was an inspiration to the world.

"We admire the generosity of hospitality, the willingness to be such good friends to people who are in distress, and, indeed, I want to do everything we can to help you deal with the burden that this has imposed," he said.

Russia has troops stationed in the disputed Moldovan territory of Transnistria, and they are being closely watched as Russian President Vladimir Putin presses on with the invasion of Ukraine.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu said there had not yet been any indication that the roughly 1,500 Russian soldiers based in Transnistria had changed position, but she stressed it was a concern given what was happening in Ukraine.

Hurting Russia's economy

Moldova says more than 230,000 refugees have crossed its border with Ukraine since the war began on 24 February.

Asked what assurances Washington could give Moldova in light of Russia's aggression toward Ukraine, Blinken pointed to US efforts to mobilise the international response that is isolating Russia and hurting its economy, Reuters reported.

"Whenever and wherever that aggression might appear, we'll do the same thing," he said.

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The United States is not committed to defending Moldova since, like Ukraine, it is not a member of Nato.

Sandu is a former World Bank economist who came to power in 2019 and won a larger mandate in elections in July promising closer ties with the West.

Moldova on Thursday formally applied to join the European Union in a move likely to rile Moscow.

Blinken said the US was providing $18m over the next few years to "strengthen and diversify" Moldova's energy sector. Moldova depends heavily on Russian gas.

"[Energy] independence and energy security is actually critical to maintaining one's sovereignty and independence," Blinken said.

At least 120,000 of those who have crossed into Moldova remain in the country, Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita said in an earlier meeting with Blinken.

"For a small country like Moldova, this is a very large number," and Moldova will need assistance to deal with the refugees, she said.

'Shooting on the street'

On Saturday, Blinken had visited a welcome centre set up by Polish authorities in what once was a shopping centre in Korczowa, where roughly 3,000 refugees are taking shelter, according to the Press Association.

"They were shooting on the street," one refugee called Tatyana said of the situation at home. Another, Anna, said her home had been destroyed by a shell or a rocket.

She said was in the basement with her daughters when the explosion happened.

"They should be in school," Anna said. "They are children, they don't understand."

Blinken watched as Polish authorities escorted small groups of refugees, about 20 at a time, across the frontier from the Ukrainian town of Krakovets.

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