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In historic crisis, 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of Russian invasion, U.N. says

Evacuees flee the city of Irpin, near Kyiv, on March 7, near the remains of a bridge that was destroyed by Ukrainian forces to slow the Russian advance. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post)
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The Russian invasion of Ukraine has driven more than 2 million people out of the country, the United Nations said Tuesday, equaling in less than two weeks the historic flow of mainly Syrian refugees into Europe in 2015 and 2016.

Half of the 2 million from Ukraine are children, according to UNICEF.

In its scale and speed, the exodus has stunned even veteran humanitarian workers, including U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. In announcing the 2 million milestone on Tuesday, he paused and repeated the distressing figure: “Two million.”

“What’s significant is the timing,” said UNHCR spokesman Chris Melzer, who has been at the Polish border. “We reached 2 million refugees in just 12 days. I can’t remember a similar situation — but definitely not in Europe.”

About 500,000 refugees have fled into neighboring countries in just two days since Sunday, even as Ukraine has accused Russia of shelling civilian evacuation routes.

Live updates: Ukraine says Russia still disrupting evacuations

Millions more people are displaced within the country, though the exact number is hard to know for sure. The United Nations estimates that ultimately as many as 4 million people may leave Ukraine — roughly 10 percent of the population.

Train stations have been filled with massive crowds. In many cases, mothers and children are saying goodbye to male family members who are staying behind to fight.

Border posts along Ukraine’s arcing 1,600-mile western border have been overwhelmed. Lines to get into Poland have stretched as long as 20 miles, with people waiting through achingly long days and frigid nights, often without food and water. Physically and emotionally beat, many of those crossing wept as they were offered a hot bowl of soup or a warm car to thaw their feet in.

Local governments in Poland, the country that has received the largest portion of Ukraine’s refugees, have organized reception centers — teeming places where refugees sleep in open rooms on cots under bright lights.

The onward journey from the border depends largely on the connections refugees have elsewhere in Europe. Those without family or friends to go to often have little more than an inkling of where to head first. Europeans from as far afield as Spain and Germany have come to border posts in vans filled with aid material and have offered rides back to their countries in their emptied vehicles.

More than 2 million people have left Ukraine, foreshadowing a massive humanitarian crisis

In the hectic, packed Warsaw central station on Tuesday, mothers and their children, university students and grandparents sat on their torn suitcases, sipped plastic bowls of hot tomato soup and tried to figure out where to go next.

Anastasiya Kravchenko, 22, had just completed a three-day journey from Kyiv, including 15 hours waiting in the cold at the border. She and her mother — along with their cat, Trixie — planned to continue on to Paris, driving a family friend’s car. Her father was still at home, where he could hear the explosions closing in.

“I’m so scared for my dad,” she said. “I just want to go back as soon as possible.”

The Ukrainian government has accused Moscow of indiscriminate shelling of residential areas, as well as shelling of humanitarian corridors. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday cited reports of Russian forces hitting an evacuation route out of the hard-hit port city of Mariupol in southern Ukraine. “Ceasefire violated!” the Foreign Ministry tweeted. “Pressure on Russia MUST step up to make it uphold its commitments.”

While Russian officials said that evacuees from Kyiv would be flown to Russia after arriving in Gomel, Belarus, officials in Ukraine have rejected the idea of evacuation corridors leading to Russia or its ally in the war, Belarus.

Ukraine said Tuesday that the only routes on which there is agreement are for reaching regions inside the country. Officials in the northeastern city of Sumy said the first buses of evacuees had left for the Ukrainian city of Poltava.

Besieged areas of the country have sought a cease-fire to restore basic services such as electricity, heat and tap water. Local officials such as Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko have warned of a humanitarian catastrophe for those who remain in cities surrounded by Russian forces.

Of those who have managed to leave Ukraine since Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, more than 1.2 million people have gone to Poland alone, U.N. data shows. Hundreds of thousands have fled to other European countries, including Hungary and Slovakia. Nearly 100,000 people have fled to Russia as of Tuesday, according to the United Nations.

As trains of Ukrainian refugees arrive in Berlin, E.U. offers warm but ‘temporary’ welcome

The European Union has enacted unprecedented measures to help the new refugees within its borders. Under rules announced last week, Ukrainian nationals will be offered temporary protection anywhere within the 27-country bloc for up to three years, depending on conditions. They will have the right to live, study and work within the E.U.

“It is heartbreaking to see the people of Ukraine leaving their whole life behind to escape from Putin’s bombs,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter on Tuesday. “Supporting them is our moral duty.”

The rules, known as “Temporary Protection,” allow Ukrainians to bypass the normal asylum system — a system that has left migrants from elsewhere, particularly Africa and the Middle East, in years-long limbo after arrival.

Suddenly welcoming, Europe opens the door to refugees fleeing Ukraine

Although Europe appears united in its desire to help Ukrainians, the welcoming tone has led to questions about why the same rules were not used to assist fleeing Syrians, Afghans and others. Some of the same governments that were most resistant to previous waves of asylum seekers are now opening their doors.

On Monday, Grandi said the outflow of Ukrainians illustrates the need for better international coordination on resettlement of refugees in Europe and elsewhere.

“This is where we need a more structured system in the E.U. and certainly beyond the E.U. [for] … how to share this responsibility,” Grandi said, pointing to Britain, the United States, Canada and other nations. “I do hope that this, in the end, is the silver lining of this crisis, that Europe understands that any country can become [a] recipient of large numbers of refugees and need the help of others.”

Melzer of UNHCR praised the support for refugees in Poland. “It’s a fantastic effort that is running well,” he said. “But no one knows what will happen. If the figures keep rising it will be challenging.”

After noting that 1 million of the 2 million Ukrainians fleeing the country are children, UNICEF spokesman James Elder on Tuesday acknowledged the deep impact the crisis is having on Ukrainian children.

“A dark historical first,” he tweeted.

Timsit reported from London, Bella from Washington, Bearak from Lviv, Ukraine, and Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Zoeann Murphy from Warsaw. Emily Rauhala in Brussels contributed to this report.