At the Ukrainian border, overwhelmed guards and volunteers cope with the exodus of refugees fleeing the war

MEDYKA, Poland—In the days following The Russian 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 the wet snow and cold rain, mothers began to abandon their cars to walk for hours, pushing the exhausted children as they dragged their pushchairs and suitcases along the road.

Near them, crowded sedans running out of gas approached a modest checkpoint that usually serves half a dozen people at a time, often day trippers crossing the duty-free zone to buy cigarettes.

Inside the checkpoint, two Ukrainian immigration officers frantically attempt to track one of the fastest exoduses from any country in modern history.

In just one week since the start of the war with Russia, more than a million refugees have left Ukraine, most heading west to Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova.

Ukrainian women with children pass the police checkpoint near the border in Krościenko on Tuesday.

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

Most people are fleeing to one country, Poland, where helicopters hover above the militarized border between Ukraine and the US-led NATO alliance.

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The sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands of people shook many European governments, which did not consider a Russian invasion as imminent as the United States and had not foreseen the mass exodus.

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

Foreign students who escaped the war in Ukraine wait to board a bus for Przemyśl, Poland on Monday.

Ukrainian refugees reached Przemyśl on Monday, where volunteers are offering food, toiletries and medical assistance.

On the eve of the conflict, Polish local governments were still scouting for potential venues – town halls, stadiums, schools – for an influx they said would total no more than a million people.

A week later, Poland is more than halfway there.

It took a procession of volunteers from both sides of the border to manage the massive displacement of Ukrainians. In roadside villages in Ukraine, bordered by fields of wheat and lavender, elderly residents set up stalls piled high with free food from their own pantries, as shelves at local gas stations were empty. Others walked alongside traffic, offering soup and porridge to passengers stuck in cars and families walking beside them.

“I saw hundreds of them, mothers with children, passing cars day and night,” said a 29-year-old IT worker who sat in her car for four days before crossing into Poland. “They are literally dragging their feet and these kids. They have no energy or strength. They throw their luggage into ditches, because they cannot take it with them.

On the Polish side, in the border town of Przemyśl, a mob of volunteers turned a parking lot in front of a shopping mall into a small tent city, directing confused refugees to buses. Nearby stood a line of people holding cardboard signs indicating the countries to which they were prepared to offer free rides: the Netherlands, Italy, Germany or France. The kitchen teams fried chocolate pancakes for the children and offered toiletries and medical assistance.

Clothes, blankets and hygiene products from aid groups piled up along the road in Medyka, Poland.

In Przemyśl on Monday, people wait to offer refugees free rides to neighboring European countries.

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

A government spokesman said the mobilization of volunteers enabled the authorities to deal with the historic influx of refugees. “We act together as a state and as a society,” he said. “Thus, the synergy effect of state and society helps Ukrainian guests incredibly.”

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

Ukrainian arrivals in border countries

The UN Refugee Agency expects four million Ukrainians to seek refuge outside the country, a number that could rise depending on the severity of the war. On Thursday, the European 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 assistance.

The massive movement of people is likely to have long-term implications for Europe, particularly Poland, whose population has been stable at 38 million since 1987. The country has had very few ethnic minorities since World War II, when the occupiers Nazis exterminated the huge Jewish community in Poland. and other minorities fled or ended up on the Soviet side of the redrawn borders.

After Russia seized Crimea in 2014, between one and two million Ukrainians settled in Poland, sowing a vast new diaspora that has become a fixture in a country historically accustomed to emigration.

The Polish government has tried to restrict the flow of asylum seekers – mostly from the Middle East and Africa – who have tried to enter this winter from Belarus, and it has opposed an EU plan aimed at redistributing refugees who entered Germany in 2015, mainly from Syria. . But he welcomed these Ukrainians, who speak a similar language and have found jobs in everything from local shops and restaurants to real estate.

When Kherson became the first Ukrainian city to come under Russian occupation, people hid inside their homes. The United Nations said more than a million people fled Ukraine in the first week of the war. Photo: Daniel Leal/AFP/Getty Images

This diaspora is likely to expand into Western Europe.

In Germany, more than 5,000 refugees have been registered since hostilities began last week, with more than 1,300 arriving by train in Berlin on Tuesday alone. Many were heading to relatives in other countries, such as Italy.

At Krościenko, a small border post in the Polish mountains, Ukrainians crossing the border are picked up by friends and relatives arriving by car from as far away as Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Germany, Latvia or the Lithuania.

Just hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the invasion in an early morning speech last Thursday, a line of cars and crowds of pedestrians formed on Ukraine’s western border with Medyka, Poland.

Soon the border post was smothered, with the refugees remaining for eight hours before they could cross on foot.

“It’s pure chaos here. All our buses are full,” the driver of a bus said last week. “This is just the beginning.”

Crowd at Przemyśl railway station, Poland.


Photo:

Dawid Zielinski for the Wall Street Journal

On the Polish side, bus drivers jostling for space in the narrow lanes argued loudly, as confused refugees like Diana Kurzienkova, a 21-year-old Ukrainian who accompanied her eight-year-old sister, stumbled across. His phone rang with Viber and Telegram messages from other Ukrainians on the way.

On Friday, a cold rain fell on a line of refugees waiting more than 20 hours to cross. In a Polish town near the border, local authorities begged their bosses to send in tents, power generators or sheets, only to learn that an emergency supply depot they were counting on had none. not.

“They just didn’t believe us that the scale of this crisis was so overwhelming,” a local official said. Eventually, firefighters sent buses to pick up the refugees as they crossed to the Polish side, and cooperation improved.

The cars were parked for more than a mile on the Polish side of each of the major border crossings, as relatives waited for loved ones to cross. On the Ukrainian side, paramedics rushed through crowds of families waiting in cold, wet weather without shelter. Volunteers delivering food faced melee of people who immediately emptied their boxes.

By Saturday, the wait to enter Poland had risen to two days, with some walking 25 miles to the border. Cases of diarrhea and other ailments began to spread on the Ukrainian side of the border, while stampedes broke out as refugees fought for space at the gates.

Ukrainian border guards began keeping out refugees from Africa and the Middle East for days, giving priority to Ukrainians, who were mostly mothers with children.

As they walked through the green metal gate into Poland, firefighters grabbed their suitcases, rolling them onto waiting buses, while others helped carry the children.

“We have too few volunteers, there are so many refugees,” said a volunteer who was helping refugees enter a parking lot by chance to direct their next move.

Write to Drew Hinshaw at [email protected]

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