In just a week, Ukrainian refugee exodus exceeds 1 million

PRZEMYSL, Poland (AP) — Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has forced more than a million people to flee their homeland in just a week, an exodus so swift it almost matches the number of people who sought refuge in Europe in a whole year during the 2015 migration crisis.

Seven years ago — again after Russian bombardments — hundreds of thousands of Syrians fled their strife-torn country. Together with people escaping fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere, they headed west, thousands dying at sea trying to reach a continent where many didn’t want them.

That arrival of about 1.3 million people sparked tensions among European partners who squabbled over how many to accept, and bolstered far-right populists, some of whom were friendly to the Kremlin.

But as Russian forces inflict massive destruction on a neighboring nation today, Europeans have united in extending a helping hand.

In one week they have accepted more than 2% of Ukraine’s 44 million population, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR. The operation has gone relatively smoothly thanks to an enormous mobilization of volunteers near and far who have gone to the borders to help — some from as far away as the United States.

One was Laura Bukavina, a Ukrainian-born doctor volunteering with the Cleveland Maidan Association, a group that arose to help Ukraine in 2014, when it was first invaded by Russia. The group sent medical supplies to Ukraine and Bukavina went to the border to provide medical assistance to Ukrainians evacuated to Polish hospitals.

UNHCR has predicted that up to 4 million people, at least, could eventually flee Ukraine.

EU Commissioner Ylva Johansson said Thursday that “we have to be prepared for millions of refugees to come to the European Union.” On Thursday, people continued to disembark in Polish, Hungarian, Slovakian, Romanian and Moldovan border towns.

Among them was Nadia Zuravka, a teenager who arrived Thursday in Przemysl, Poland, with her mother. They came from Ukraine’s second-largest city of Kharkiv, which is facing massive bombardment. She said both her school and her home had been hit by bombs and her friends were all hiding in basements.

“Everything of value to me” has faced some level of destruction, she said.

Poland, a neighboring Slavic nation where many Ukrainians have settled in recent years for work, has received the largest single group of refugees so far — with many being taken in by relatives or Polish friends. The refugees also head for Ukraine’s other western neighbors, some moving on from there to countries like Italy and Germany, where many Ukrainians live.

In all cases, authorities and volunteers have met exhausted people at border crossings after bus and train journeys that take days. They serve food to the newcomers or guide them to shelters — and sometimes take strangers into their own homes.

They are taking in orphans and treating the sick in hospitals, including children with cancer who have been evacuated to hospitals in Poland.

Pope Francis publicly thanked Poland for its role in helping refugees from the war in Ukraine this week, praising the country’s people for “opening your borders, your hearts, the doors of your homes.”

People from across Europe are helping too, even as they struggle with their own fears of what this dangerous new chapter holds in store for a continent that has faced so much bloodshed in past wars.

Luc Dedecker drove 1,650 kilometers (1,025 miles) from his home in Belgium to Przemysl, stopping only to sleep in his car. He was prepared to take strangers back to his home.

“People need to be helped,” he said. He also described a profound fear of President Russian Vladimir Putin.

For Poles, Russia’s attack on Ukraine inevitably evokes memories of their own country’s double invasion in 1939 by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The German invasion triggered World War II and a brutal five-year occupation that killed 6 million Poles, including 3 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.

Scenes of destroyed Ukrainian cities today recall the look of Polish cities leveled by German bombardments during the war.

Some described helping Ukrainians now as part of a struggle by the democratic West to defend their own liberty, since sheltering Ukrainian women and children frees the men to fight at home.

“We think that if Ukrainians fight and win, we will be safe. Now we are not safe,” said Bartosz Tomaszewski, a 28-year-old Pole in a yellow security vest that marked him as a volunteer.

He has been helping to guide people coming off trains in Przemsyl, traveling there each day from his home in the nearby city of Rzeszow.

Tomaszewski fears that if Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy fails to stop Putin, Poland would be the next target, along with the Baltic nations of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia.

“Putin is a sick man, to me, he’s like Hitler,” Tomaszewski said. “It would be World World III.”


Monika Scislowska in Warsaw and Raf Casert in Brussels contributed.


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