News from Ukraine: War refugees exceed 5 million

WARSAW, POLAND – After spending weeks without electricity or water in the basement of his family’s home in Ukraine, Viktoriya Savyichkina made a daring escape from the besieged city of Mariupol with his 9- and 14-year-old daughters.

Their accommodation is currently a huge convention center in the Polish capital. Savyichkina said she saw a photo of the destroyed Mariupol house. From a cot in a foreign country, the 40-year-old bookeeper thinks of starting her life and that of her children over from scratch.

“I don’t even know where we’re going, how it’s going to be,” Savyichkina said. “I would like to go home, of course. Maybe here I will enjoy it in Poland.”

As the war in Ukraine approaches eight weeks, more than 5 million people have fled the country since Russian troops invaded on February 24, the UN refugee agency reported on Wednesday. When the number reached 4 million on March 30, the exodus exceeded the worst forecasts of the Geneva-based UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

The even bigger milestone in Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since World War II was taken when Russia unleashed a full-scale offensive in eastern Ukraine that will disrupt and end more lives. .

Ukraine had a pre-war population of 44 million, and the UNHCR says the conflict has displaced more than 7 million people inside Ukraine, as well as the 5.03 million who left on Wednesday. According to the agency, 13 million people are believed to be trapped in the war-affected regions of Ukraine.

“We saw around a quarter of Ukraine’s population, more than 12 million people in total, were forced to flee their homes, so that’s a staggering number of people,” UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said. at the Associated Press.

More than half of the refugees, more than 2.8 million, fled at least initially to Poland. They are entitled to national identification numbers which entitle them to work, free health care, schooling and bonuses for families with children.

Although many have stayed there, an unknown number have traveled to other countries. Savyichkina said she plans to take her daughters to Germany.

“We hope to be able to live there, send the children to school, find work and start from scratch,” she said at the sprawling premises of the Global EXPO Center in Warsaw, which provides basic housing for around 800 refugees.

If “everything goes well, if the children like it first of all, then we will stay. Otherwise…” Savyichkina said.

Further south, Hungary has become an important transit point for Ukrainian refugees. Of more than 465,000 arrivals, some 16,400 have applied for protected status, which means they want to stay. Many are members of the Hungarian ethnic minority in Ukraine.

The Hungarian government says it has provided about $8.7 million to several charities and gives grants to companies that employ Ukrainians who have been granted asylum.

In March, a non-governmental organization, Migration Aid, rented an entire five-storey building in Budapest, a former workers’ hostel, to provide temporary accommodation for people fleeing war in Ukraine. It has helped some 4,000 refugees so far.

Tatiana Shulieva, 67, a retired epidemiologist who fled Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine and wants to go to Egypt, said the night she spent at the hostel was “like a fairy tale “after taking refuge in a basement for weeks to escape the constant shelling.

Neighboring Romania has taken in more than 750,000 Ukrainian refugees. Oxana Cotus, who fled the Ukrainian city of Mykolaiv with her four young children, first decided to go to Denmark but ended up in Bucharest because she speaks Romanian and didn’t want to be far from Ukraine .

She praised the help she received from the International Red Cross to help her move and settle.

European nations hosting refugees say they need international help to manage the challenge, especially now that Russia has stepped up its attacks in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

“If we have a second wave of refugees, then a real problem will come because we are at full capacity. We cannot accept any more,” Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski told The Associated Press.

About 300,000 war refugees are in the city of some 1.8 million people, most of them living in private homes, Trzaskowski said. Residents of Warsaw expected to host refugees for a few months, but not indefinitely, he said.

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki was in Lviv, Ukraine, on Tuesday to visit a refugee center made up of mobile modules that the Ukrainian and Polish governments jointly built to house displaced people who do not want to leave Ukraine.

Refugee organizations say the best help would be for the war to stop.

“Unfortunately, without an immediate cessation of fighting, the untold suffering and massive displacement we are witnessing will only get worse,” said UNHCR’s Mantoo.

Polish data shows that some 738,000 people returned to Ukraine during the war. Some of them commute to shop in Poland, while others return to Ukraine to check on loved ones and possessions, choosing to stay or go again depending on what they find.

More than half of Ukrainian refugees are children, according to UNHCR. Thousands of civilians, including children, have been killed or injured in shelling and airstrikes.

Mantoo, called the “outpouring of support and generosity” shown by the arriving Ukrainian refugees, has been “remarkable”.

“But what is important is that it is supported and that it is channeled to ensure that refugees can receive this support while the fighting continues, when they cannot return home,” said she declared.

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Amer Cohadzic in Sarajevo, Justin Spike in Budapest and Nicolae Dumitrache in Bucharest contributed to this report.

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Christi C. Elwood