After a missile attack near the airport in Lviv in western Ukraine early on Friday, UN humanitarians warned that the situation across the country remains dire, as Russia’s military invasion continues.

“What happened in Lviv this morning, is nothing new, just as it was in other parts of the country, but it’s a strong reminder that this country is in war and the medical needs are increasing,” said Dr Jarno Habicht, representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) in Ukraine.

Now in its fourth week, the war in Ukraine has seen 44 attacks on healthcare throughout the country, including on buildings and a warehouse, patients, staff and supply chains, resulting in 12 confirmed deaths, according to WHO data.

Push for access

With more than 3.1 million refugees forced to flee Ukraine over the past 3 weeks, and millions internally displaced within the country, humanitarian needs are increasing exponentially.

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— UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency (@Refugees) March 18, 2022

Despite the dangers, the UN and its partners have continued to push for humanitarian access.

“On deliveries, we have up to 100 metric tonnes made available for Ukraine,” Dr Habicht said, speaking from Lviv, adding that “at least one-third” had been dispatched to healthcare facilities, including in the capital Kyiv.

Mariupol, Sumy, ‘extremely dire’

Underscoring the deadly danger to civilians unable to escape Russian bombardment, the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) described the situation in cities such as Mariupol and Sumy as “extremely dire, with residents facing critical and potentially fatal shortages of food, water and medicine”.

That assessment followed the bombing of a theatre in Mariupol on Wednesday, targeted despite clearly visible lettering daubed on the ground outside the building, indicating that “Children” were sheltering inside.

In the country’s eastern regions, or oblasts, needs “are becoming even more urgent”, said UNHCR spokesperson Matthew Saltmarsh. “More than 200,000 people are now without access to water across several localities in Donetsk oblast, while the constant shelling in Luhansk region has destroyed 80 per cent of some localities, leaving 97,800 families without power.”

In Odessa, UNHCR reported that the authorities have appealed for support for general food assistance to cover the needs of 450,000 people in the city, as well as medicine.

“As of 17 March, a permanent consultation point for protection, legal, and social matters is functioning at the Odessa railway station where 600 to 800 individuals transit daily on their way from Mykolaiv, to the western oblasts of Ukraine,” the agency reported.

More than 3.2 million refugees

According to UNHCR, more than 3.2 million people have now fled Ukraine, and millions more are internally displaced, some of the 13 million hardest-hit by the war.

Ukrainian refugees living in temporary accommodation in Krowica Sama.

© WHO/Agata Grzybowska/RATS Agency

Ukrainian refugees living in temporary accommodation in Krowica Sama.

Those who have left Ukraine have found shelter in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Russia and to a much lesser extent, Belarus. Ninety per cent are women and children and 162,000 are third-country nationals.

They don’t have a plan when they arrive,” said Mr. Saltmarsh. “So many of those in the first phase might have had friends, diaspora networks, contacts, a relative to whom they could go and stay with initially, and then make a plan from there. That’s been less the case recently.”

To counter the risk of exploitation of these vulnerable new arrivals, UNHCR and UNICEF have set up safe spaces known as “Blue Dots” in six countries: Czech Republic, Hungary, Moldova, Poland, Romania and Slovakia.

Safe zones to repel traffickers

These facilities are “one-stop-shops, and safe spaces which provide a minimum set of protection services for children, families and others with specific needs, in support of

existing services and government efforts,” UNHCR explained.

Also providing help to victims of the conflict, UN migration agency IOM said that last year it identified and assisted over 1,000 victims of trafficking.

IOM spokesperson Paul Dillon added that a telephone hotline that the agency set up in the last nine days has so far received more than 10,000 phone calls, more than half of which were related to trafficking concerns.

IOM: Web of protection

“We’re working with our many partners on the ground to ensure that these protective messages and these efforts that are being made at the border to inform people are then structured in a coherent manner”, he said.

Not just for the people who are coming across the borders, but for border guards and for volunteers working at these border points in reception centres and indeed for IOM staff on the ground.”

OCHA appeal for safe passage agreements

With a solid agreement on continued and safe humanitarian access still proving elusive, Jens Laerke from the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) urged both sides to the armed conflict “to agree with each other a mechanism of the modalities, standard operating procedures into actually minute detail how such safe passages – either for movement of humanitarian supplies, or on the other hand, for evacuation of civilians – how that can be established”.