CHISINAU, Moldova — Russia’s war in Ukraine has caused the fastest-moving flow of refugees in Europe since the end of World War II, the head of the United Nations refugee agency said on Saturday.
In the 10 days since the war began, at least 1.2 million people in Ukraine have fled to neighboring countries. That movement of mostly women and children is coming at a faster rate than the relocation of people at the height of the Balkan wars in the 1990s, and far faster than the one during the Hungarian refugee crisis of 1956, said Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
“This is the fastest-moving refugee crisis — let’s call it a refugee crisis, please, it’s a refugee crisis — since World War II,” Mr. Grandi said in an interview.
“The Balkans moved millions of people, but over a very long period of time,” Mr. Grandi added. “It lasted six or seven years.”
Mr. Grandi had just returned from a visit to the border between Ukraine and Moldova, and said he had been particularly struck by the suddenness with which the refugees crossing there had been wrested from ordinary, comfortable lives in what had until recently been calm, functional cities.
“It is an avalanche of people with cars, with pets,” Mr. Grandi said. “It’s entire cities being emptied, and crossing the border. It’s very specific, very peculiar. It will come with its own needs and specificities.”
Poland has taken in the largest number of Ukrainians, but Mr. Grandi was particularly concerned about Moldova, which has received more refugees per capita than any of Ukraine’s other neighbors. Since Feb. 24, more than 200,000 people coming from Ukraine have entered Moldova, which has an official population of 2.6 million and is one of Europe’s poorest countries.
Unlike its western neighbors, Moldova is not a member of the European Union, and therefore lacks significant institutional support from the bloc.
Mr. Grandi said that Moldova and its neighbors would need profound help to absorb newcomers into their education, health and social service systems, a process that will inevitably strain the social consensus in those countries.
But he said he had been heartened by the swiftness with which European countries had responded to the crisis — which he hoped signaled a paradigm shift in the way that European governments approach refugees.
On Thursday, the European Union’s 27 members unanimously agreed to automatically give Ukrainian refugees the right to live and work within the bloc for up to three years.
It was a collective act of welcome that had no precedent during the refugee crisis of 2015, when more than a million refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, sought safety in Europe.
“I hope that it’s a good lesson that then Europe will accept to apply to other people coming to seek refuge in the continent,” Mr. Grandi said.
If there was any silver lining to the Ukrainian refugee crisis, “it’s that Europe now has understood that anybody can become a refugee,” Mr. Grandi said. “Anybody can become a country being hit by a wave of refugees.”