At Ukrainian border, overwhelmed guards, volunteers confront exodus of refugees | Mint

At Ukrainian border, overwhelmed guards, volunteers confront exodus of refugees

REUTERS
REUTERS

Summary

  • Volunteers mobilize to help exhausted refugees. ‘They don’t have energy and strength.’

Within days of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine last week, the line of cars carrying people fleeing to the country’s border with Poland was already 55 miles long.

In wet snow and cold rain, mothers began abandoning their cars to walk for hours, prodding exhausted children as they dragged their strollers and suitcases along the road.

Near them, jam-packed sedans running low on gas inched to a modest checkpoint that ordinarily serves a half dozen people at a time, often day-trippers crossing into the duty-free zone to buy cigarettes.

Inside the checkpoint, two Ukrainian immigration officers have been frantically trying to keep up with one of the fastest exoduses from any country in modern history.

In just a week since the war with Russia began, more than one million refugees have left Ukraine, most headed west into Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.

At the current pace, by the weekend, more asylum seekers will have entered the European Union in a matter of days than in all of 2015, when 1.3 million people crossed from the Middle East and Africa into the bloc. That would make the rush from Ukraine the continent’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II.

Most of the people are fleeing to a single country, Poland, where helicopters buzz over the militarized border between Ukraine and the U.S.-led NATO alliance.

The sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of people has jolted many European governments, which didn’t consider a Russian invasion as imminent as the U.S. did, and hadn’t foreseen the massive exodus.

Two days into the war, which began last Thursday, no EU member state had requested tents, blankets or other basic necessities from the bloc’s emergency reserves.

On the eve of the conflict, Poland’s local governments were still scouting potential locations—town halls, stadiums, schools—for an inflow that it estimated would reach no more than one million people in all.

A week later, Poland is more than halfway there.

It took a procession of volunteers on both sides of the border to manage the mass displacement of Ukrainians. In roadside villages in Ukraine, lined with wheat and lavender fields, elderly residents set up stands stacked with free food from their own pantries, as shelves at local gas stations ran bare. Others walked along the traffic, offering soup and porridge to passengers stuck in cars and to families trekking beside them.

“I saw hundreds of them, mothers with children passing by the cars, day and night," said a 29-year-old IT worker who sat in her car for four days before crossing into Poland. “They literally drag their feet and these children. They don’t have energy and strength. They throw their luggage into ditches, because they are not able to carry it with them."

On the Polish side, in the border town of Przemyśl, a crush of volunteers turned a parking lot across from a shopping mall into a small tent city, directing confused refugees into buses. Nearby stood a line of people holding cardboard signs for countries they were willing to offer free rides to: the Netherlands, Italy, Germany, or France. Kitchen crews fried crepes with chocolate for children, and offered toiletries and medical assistance.

“Nobody told us to come here. Nobody, including us, knew what to do. We had to figure it out ourselves," said an aid worker who was scrambling to find medicine for a group of sick children.

A government spokesman said the mobilization by volunteers made it possible for authorities to process the historic influx of refugees. “We act together as a state and as a society," he said. “So the synergy effect of the state and the society is helping incredibly with the guests from Ukraine."

Whatever the duration and outcome of the war, it is likely the conflict will deposit an enormous diaspora of Ukrainians in the EU, reshaping politics, society and the refugee population on the continent.

The U.N. Refugee Agency expects four million Ukrainians to seek shelter outside the country, a number that could rise depending on the severity of the war. On Thursday, the EU Commission is expected to approve two-year residence and work permits for Ukrainians entering the bloc, measures that will also give them access to housing, medical coverage, schools and social-welfare assistance.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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