As many as 10mn mostly women and children have fled fighting in Ukraine, either moving within the country or escaping abroad, in an “unprecedented” exodus for modern times, the UN refugee agency has said.

Some 6.5mn people have been displaced within the war-ravaged nation, while almost 3.5mn have crossed borders to safety since Russia invaded on February 24, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees said on Monday.

“The combined speed and scale of this movement is unprecedented in recent memory,” said Matthew Saltmarsh, head of news at the refugee agency. “In Ukraine, our priority has been to scale up our presence and operations in central and western regions, where conditions enable better humanitarian access and needs are rapidly growing as people evacuate west and move across borders.”

In neighbouring countries, the agency workers have focused on cross-border aid delivery, cash provision and helping refugees while supporting the host governments, authorities and local communities, Saltmarsh added.

“The war in Ukraine is so devastating that 10mn have fled,” Filippo Grandi, head of the UN refugee agency, said on Twitter.

“Among the responsibilities of those who wage war, everywhere in the world, is the suffering inflicted on civilians who are forced to flee their homes,” he added.

Grandi has previously called the Ukraine conflict “the fastest growing refugee crisis in Europe since the second world war”.

Two-thirds, or 2mn, of those who fled abroad crossed into Poland, which shares a more than 300-mile border with Ukraine. About 90 per cent of those fleeing are women and children, prompting UNHCR and other agencies to warn of increased risks of trafficking and exploitation.

The UNHCR estimates that more than 12mn people have been affected in the areas hardest hit by the war within Ukraine, adding that humanitarian needs are “increasing exponentially”.

“Many people remain trapped in areas of escalating conflict and, with essential services disrupted, are unable to meet their basic needs including food, water and medicines,” the UNHCR said last week.

People flee “because they are afraid of bombs, air strikes and indiscriminate destruction”, Grandi said in his latest tweet, even as “humanitarians are doing all they can in Ukraine to reach people in need, often in dangerous circumstances”.

The number of refugees from Ukraine has more than doubled since March 11 when the estimates rose to 2.5mn, with another 2mn displaced inside the country.

Ukraine rejected a Russian deadline on Monday to surrender control of the besieged port city of Mariupol, the scene of some of the conflict’s heaviest fighting.

The Russian defence ministry said it would open humanitarian corridors out of Mariupol and told Ukrainian forces to lay down their arms and leave.

Local officials last week reported that about 350,000 people were trapped in Mariupol, the UNHCR said. In Odesa, authorities have appealed for support to cover the needs of about 450,000 people.

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