GENEVA (Reuters) - About 730,000 Ukrainians have left the country for Russia this year, the European head of the United Nations agency for refugees said on Tuesday, citing data compiled by Russia.
The figure, which the UNHCR said it had assessed as reliable, excluded people who would normally have crossed the border for trade or tourism purposes, the agency’s European director Vincent Cochetel told a news briefing.
“The 730,000, it’s the ‘plus’ compared to other years,” he said. “...Sometimes they just walk across the border, they come with plastic bags. Many of them are really destitute.”
The figure suggests this year’s exodus from Ukraine is bigger than previously thought.
A further 117,000 were displaced inside Ukraine, a number that was growing by about 1,200 per day, he said.
The UNHCR did not break down its headline figure by ethnic group, though Cochetel said a “wind of panic” was driving civilians away as the Ukrainian army closes in on major eastern cities held by separatist forces.
Much of Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine has since April been a battleground between government troops and pro-Russian separatists, many of whom are ethnic Russians.
Ukrainian forces say they have been making steady gains and have virtually encircled the separatists’ second-largest stronghold of Luhansk while rebels have declared a state of siege in Donetsk, the largest city they hold.
Russia’s Migration Service recently said it had this year received applications from around 160,000 Ukrainian citizens. The UNHCR’s Cochetel said the 730,000 figure included those who had asked Russia for protection.
The Donetsk and Luhansk regions - the easternmost in Ukraine - had a combined population of some 6.5 million people at the start of this year, according to official data.
Reporting by Tom Miles, editing by John Stonestreet