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400,000 Ukrainians flee to European countries, including some that previously spurned refugees

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/26/2022 Miriam Berger
People make their way to the border crossing with Poland in Mostyska, Ukraine, on Feb. 26, after Russia launched its invasion. © Thomas Peter/Reuters People make their way to the border crossing with Poland in Mostyska, Ukraine, on Feb. 26, after Russia launched its invasion.

More than 400,000 Ukrainians have fled to European neighbors — mainly to Poland, as well as to Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania — since Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, a spokesman for the United Nations refugee agency said Sunday.

Thousands more are still trying to get through the clogged borders, waiting in the cold for hours on end in cars or on foot with only minimal belongings. As of Saturday, there was a nearly nine-mile backlog at the crossing into Poland, with some people waiting for 40 hours in 28-degree temperatures at night, according to a spokesperson with the U.N. refugee agency, Chris Melzer.

The scale of the exodus has not been seen in Europe in years. What could become Europe’s biggest humanitarian emergency since 2015 — when more than 1 million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, arrived and triggered a continentwide crisis over whether to accept or reject those fleeing — is swiftly unfolding.

So far, European leaders and communities say they are ready to welcome Ukrainian refugees — including countries such as Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, which have previously hardened their borders and policies in the face of other waves of refugees amid a backlash from the far right.

In contrast to 2015 when many European countries were hostile to sharing the burden of so many refugees, German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said Sunday that Germany was ready to offer Poland and other Eastern European countries support to handle the sudden surge in Ukrainians.

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Meanwhile, the situation keeps getting more grave: The United Nations warned on Friday that up to 5 million of Ukraine’s 44 million people could become refugees if Russia’s attacks on Ukraine continue. It’s mainly women, children and the elderly fleeing — as males ages 18 to 60 are barred from leaving Ukraine after President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Ukrainians to take up arms and defend the country.

New challenges continue to emerge. A data-wiping software hit a Ukrainian border control station that was processing people fleeing the country into neighboring Romania on Friday, a cybersecurity expert at the checkpoint told The Washington Post.

“It’s massively hitting the border control,” said the expert, Chris Kubecka. “They are processing people with pen and pencil.”

In many cases, volunteers with locally funded food, clothes and warm rooms await those arriving.

“I see that there is a huge response from regular citizens,” said Polish women’s rights activist Marta Lempart, whose group, the All-Poland Women’s Strike, has in days gone from protesting abortion restrictions to organizing immediate shelter, food, medical care and other donations for Ukrainians arriving.

“We have calls [for donations] from all over Europe and the world,” she said. “We have to do this. Ukrainians fight for us and they fight for European human values.”

Ukrainian refugees are offered warm clothes as they arrive at the Medyka border crossing. © Visar Kryeziu/AP Ukrainian refugees are offered warm clothes as they arrive at the Medyka border crossing.

Poland, which has seen the biggest influx, pledged to set up reception centers along its 300-mile border to offer food, medical care and other resources. This month, thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division deployed there to help with preparations.

Some 45,200 Ukrainian refugees crossed into Poland in just 15 hours Saturday, said Melzer of UNHCR.

“We will do everything to provide safe shelter in Poland for everyone who needs it,” Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said Thursday.

Poland is already home to around 2 million Ukrainians, many of whom fled there after Russia’s 2014 takeover of Crimea and the start of the eight-year-long war in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations has estimated that another 1 million to 3 million Ukrainians could join them.

People wait to cross the border into Poland in Mostyska, Ukraine. © Thomas Peter/Reuters People wait to cross the border into Poland in Mostyska, Ukraine.

Other neighbors, such as Hungary and Slovakia, are sending troops to their borders to aid with the intake of refugees. In Romania, volunteers are similarly queuing to offer food and free accommodation. Ukrainians do not need a visa to enter these countries, as they can stay anywhere in the European Union’s Schengen Area for up to 90 days visa-free. (This agreement is set to change at the end of 2022.)

Ireland, which is not part of the Schengen Area, said Thursday that it would waive its visa requirement for Ukrainians. The first minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said his “nation of sanctuary” was ready to welcome Ukrainians.

Other governments, including Britain’s, have pledged to help Ukraine but have not loosened or clarified their immigration policies.

Ukraine is not a member of the European Union — the main alliance of European countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin considers an existential threat.

But Ylva Johansson, the European commissioner for home affairs, told Euronews on Wednesday that the E.U. was “quite well prepared” to absorb Ukrainian refugees as a matter of “unity” and “solidarity.”

“We are looking into the support from the E.U. asylum agency with processing asylum applications, the support from Frontex with registration and border management, and the support from Europol as well,” she said.

The Ukraine crisis has pushed some countries to reform their policies. While Austria did not accept Ukrainian refugees during the 2014 Crimea crisis, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said Thursday that he would welcome them in this time as a part of Europe — the very idea that Putin rejects.

“We are a European family, and families stand by each other,” he said.

Slovakian officials said Saturday that the country will provide monthly stipends to Slovakians who support and house displaced Ukrainians. Back in 2015, however, the country declared it would not accept Syrian refugees — unless they were Christian.

These kinds of disparities have frustrated refugee advocates, who have long criticized European leaders for pledging to support refugees while falling short on funding programs and maintaining often harsh, unwelcoming restrictions.

In recent years, European countries have aimed to stop — at times violently — the flow of largely non-White and non-Christian migrants and asylum seekers fleeing other conflicts and wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

Migrants trapped in Poland-Belarus standoff: What to know

In November, Poland forcibly denied entry to asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa who became caught in a geopolitical standoff between Russia and Europe as they tried to enter from neighboring Belarus.

In 2015, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a fence to cut off one of the migrant routes. More recently, he supported a law making it a crime to help immigrants who entered Hungary illegally to apply for asylum.

Backlash to the influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016 emboldened the far-right in some European countries and led to a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and policies.

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