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GENEVA, September 2 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency said on Tuesday that fighting in eastern Ukraine, in particular around Donetsk, Luhansk and neighbouring towns, is driving more people from their homes and increasing the need for humanitarian aid.
Vincent Cochetel, director of UNHCR's Europe Bureau, told journalists in Geneva that the number of people displaced inside Ukraine had more than doubled in the past four weeks. UNHCR estimates that 260,000 people were displaced as of Monday, compared to 117,000 in the first week of August.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said the steep rise in the number of displaced over the past three weeks was a deep concern. "If this crisis is not quickly stopped, it will have not only devastating humanitarian consequences but it also has the potential to destabilize the whole region. After the lessons of the Balkans, it is hard to believe a conflict of these proportions could unfold in the European continent," he said.
Most of the displaced - 94 per cent - are from eastern Ukraine and are remaining in the Donetsk, Kharkiv and Kyiv regions. UNHCR believes the actual number of people displaced is higher as many are staying with families and friends and choose not to register with the authorities.
"Because of insecurity, humanitarian actors have not been able to assess the situation of people displaced in the Luhansk region," Cochetel said, adding that UNHCR planned to conduct a fact-finding mission later this week. The Ukrainian authorities say that 2.2 million people currently remain in conflict areas.
The number of those using three corridors set-up by the Ukrainian authorities to flee conflict areas is decreasing, mainly due to recent incidents when civilians have lost their lives in attacks. Reportedly 6,000 people have left through these corridors since the end of July.
In the Donetsk region since last Tuesday, local authorities reported that some 10,000 people left the port town of Mariupol to Zaporizhzhia and Berdiansk and other locations, following military activities of the anti-government forces.
UNHCR's Cochetel said shelling had left people in conflict areas with limited access to food, water and other basic necessities. In Donetsk, Makiivka and Gorlovka, the regional authorities estimate there are 20,000 people with disabilities and needing help.
In Luhansk, residents have been without proper supplies of food and water, and dealing with electricity shortages and communications problems for a month. Buildings and roads are severely damaged, impeding efforts to provide humanitarian aid.
In Yasynuvata, some 150 people have reportedly found shelter in basements without electricity. Many of them are older people. Newly displaced people are arriving with limited resources and are more dependent on aid.
After the Ukrainian government re-established control over various towns in the northern part of Donetsk region in early July, many internally displaced people quickly returned. For instance, some 20,000 displaced people returned to the town of Slovyansk from other areas of the Donetsk region.
Meanwhile the number of Ukrainians seeking refugee status or asylum in the Russian Federation increased by almost 66,000 during August. According to the Federal Migration Service, more than 121,000 Ukrainians have applied for refugee status or temporary asylum since January 1.
Since late July, the quotas for temporary asylum set for several regions including Moscow, Saint Petersburg, Rostov and Chechnya have been filled, meaning that Ukrainian nationals need to seek asylum in other regions. In addition, 138,825 Ukrainians have applied for other forms of legal stay such as temporary/permanent residence permits and under the programme of "resettlement of compatriots."
A larger number of Ukrainians are arriving in Russia under the visa-free regime. The Russian authorities say around 814,000 Ukrainians have entered Russia since the start of the year. This figure includes people who have applied for refugee/temporary asylum and other residence options.
Most Ukrainians arriving in Russia stay with relatives, friends or find private accommodation with a host family or rent their own apartments. The authorities have adopted regulations to facilitate the temporary stay of Ukrainians.
UNHCR continues to support local government and civic society, as well as deliver assistance directly to the most vulnerable. To date, the UN refugee agency has distributed more than 150 tonnes of humanitarian assistance to the Donetsk and Kharkiv regions, hosting over 100,000 displaced people. UNHCR also has coordinated distribution of food provided by different foundations.
A total of 4,106 Ukrainians requested asylum in the European Union between January and July, compared to 903 applications in the whole 2013. Most Ukrainian applications for asylum were in Poland (1,082), Germany (556) and Sweden (500). In addition, 380 Ukrainians have sought asylum in Belarus.