1 Million Kids Have Fled Ukraine Since Russian Invasion Began, Says U.N.: 'Dark Historical First'

Of the two million refugees fleeing Ukraine, about half are children, according to international officials

Ukrainian children
Ukrainian children. Photo: NIKOLAY DOYCHINOV/AFP via Getty

A million children have been forced to leave their homes in Ukraine amid Russia's invasion of the country, according to the United Nations.

The organization's UNICEF agency reports that 2 million people have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded in late February and that half of those fleeing the violence are children.

UNICEF spokesman James Elder appeared on CNN Tuesday where he told host Wolf Blitzer, "We've never faced a refugee crisis at this speed and scale."

Elder continued, "A million kids [became] refugees in under two weeks," adding, "This is unprecedented, globally. It's harrowing. It's happening as we speak."

The UNICEF official also shared a clip of his CNN interview on Twitter, where he described the scale of the exodus as "a dark historical first."

The Russian invasion marks the biggest conflict in Europe since World War II.

U.N. officials have sought — sometimes unsuccessfully — to pause the fighting long enough to allow civilians trapped in conflict zones to leave safely via humanitarian corridors, The New York Times reports.

Despite this, there have been ongoing reports of civilians, including children, killed in bombings and other apparent Russian attacks. Russia has repeatedly denied it targets civilian sites.

"Reliable and predictable 'windows of silence' and 'safe passage' are urgently needed to relocate people whose lives are at risk," said Amin Awad, U.N. crisis coordinator for Ukraine, per the Times.

Most Ukrainians fleeing their homes have traveled to nearby countries, according to data from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which reports that 1.2 million refugees have left Ukraine for Poland.

The UNHCR estimates that as many as 4 million people could flee Ukraine amidst the conflict.

Ukrainian children
Ukrainian refugee children. Marcus Brandt/picture alliance via Getty

Russia's attack on Ukraine continues. Russian forces first launched a large-scale invasion on Feb. 24.

Details of the fighting change by the day, but hundreds of civilians have already been reported dead or wounded, including kids.

"You don't know where to go, where to run, who you have to call. This is just panic," Liliya Marynchak, a 45-year-old teacher in Ivano-Frankivsk, Ukraine, told PEOPLE of the moment her city was bombed — one of numerous accounts of bombardment by the Russians.

The invasion, ordered by Russian President Vladimir Putin, has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, various countries have also pledged aid or military support to the resistance. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called for peace talks while urging his country to fight back.

Putin insists Ukraine has historic ties to Russia and he is acting in the best security interests of his country. Zelenskyy vowed not to bend.

"Nobody is going to break us, we're strong, we're Ukrainians," he told the European Union in a speech in the early days of the fighting, adding, "Life will win over death. And light will win over darkness."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

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