Ukrainians are pouring into Poland. But many are heading the other way, to fight
Atrain packed with hundreds of Ukrainians arrives in Przemysl, a city in eastern Poland, after a delay of several hours. Nearly all of the passengers are women and children, many of them exhausted and crying.
At the nearby border crossing, Medyka, the situation is even more desperate. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians, as well as foreigners escaping from Ukraine, queue on the Ukrainian side of the border in the cold, sometimes for more than a day. The traffic is such that many had no choice but to leave their cars behind and continue on foot. Holding a bag in one hand, her young daughter’s hand in the other, and carrying her toddler in a sling, Anastasia describes having to walk 17km to the border. She was greeted by scenes of chaos, she says, including impenetrable crowds and vigorous shoving. A young couple remembers seeing a village consumed by flames on the way. “It was hell,” says Katya, describing the way her apartment in Kyiv shook as Russian bombs struck the city, and her subsequent journey to safety. “Fuck Russia,” she says, before apologizing for her language and correcting herself. “Fuck Putin.”
There are also heartening scenes. Thousands of Poles and Ukrainians already settled in Poland, as well as Europeans from farther away, have turned up near the crossings, offering free transport and housing to refugees. Buses move the newly arrived to schools and sports halls, now serving as shelters. Volunteers distribute clothing, sim cards, nappies, and food. Muhammed Isa, who came to the border from Norway, embraces his elderly father, who has just crossed from Ukraine. Both men are Syrians, from Aleppo, the father displaced for the second time in under a decade, and both times by Russian bombs.
This is the kind of refugee crisis that Europe hoped never to see again. Some half a million have already left Ukraine since the war began, said the un High Commissioner for Refugees on February 28th. Around half are going through Poland, with Hungary, Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia taking the rest. The European Union’s commissioner for crisis management says the war could force 4m people to flee from Ukraine. Millions more will take refuge in the country’s west, which many hope will escape the brunt of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
The EU’s borders, which have been closed ever more tightly to most refugees since a big influx from Syria and Afghanistan in 2015-16, are opening up for Ukrainians. Poland, already home to nearly 1.5m Ukrainians—some of them displaced by Russia’s earlier aggression in the Donbas—will provide “every refugee from Ukraine” with shelter and assistance, says Mariusz Kamiński, the country’s interior minister. Romania is prepared to accommodate up to 500,000. “We have to help because there’s a feeling that we might be next,” says Pawel Madejowski, a Polish businessman who is ferrying refugees from the border to nearby shelters in his van.
In contrast to 2015, when four-fifths of adult migrants from Syria and Afghanistan were men, the Ukrainians migrating are “almost exclusively” women and children, says one official. That is because Ukrainian men aged 18-60 are subject to conscription and banned from leaving the country. Such rules create heartbreaking scenes at the border. Roman, a 19-year-old economics student from Kyiv, cradles a three-year-old outside a train station in Lviv. His wife Veronika will take their child into Poland; he has escorted them here, before heading back and possibly into battle. “We don’t know how long it will continue,” he says. Another man in Lviv, Siman, is a construction engineer who until recently was working in France. He returned to Ukraine to bury his grandmother but now finds himself trapped in Ukraine and obliged to take up arms against the Russian army. And he is happy about it. Why? “Because I am Ukrainian. I am ready. There is a first time for everything.”
Other things are different, too. Since 2017, Ukrainians have enjoyed visa-free travel around the EU for 90 days, meaning they need not seek asylum in the first EU country they enter. The task of accommodating them will thus be spread between countries. (In 2015 it fell disproportionately on Greece and Italy, which have long Mediterranean coastlines, and on Germany and Sweden, which threw open their doors.)
Traveling to a land border, often in cars, lets people bring more of their life with them, including their pets. “You don’t have to walk across three countries, cross a desert, and sink into the Mediterranean,” says Hanne Beirens of the Migration Policy Institute, a think-tank. Ukraine, though poor by European standards, is one of the most educated societies in the world, with 79% of those aged 20-26 possessing a degree. So most refugees should eventually be able to find jobs.
Perhaps the biggest difference is the way this new exodus will be received. Many Ukrainians already live in the European Union. Plenty is helping their compatriots when they arrive, offering shelter and tips on how to get by. If they end up staying, such ties will no doubt help them integrate. For governments, accepting migrants with real support from citizens is “much easier than if you need to organize it against the will of the people,” says Michael Spindelegger, an Austrian ex-foreign minister.
Most important, perhaps, is that the European Commission seems poised to agree that Ukrainians will avoid the bloc’s asylum red tape and receive a new kind of legal protection. On March 3rd member states look set to invoke a law on temporary protection, 21 years on the books but never used, that would grant Ukrainians protection for three years, perhaps kicking in after their visa-free travel period runs out. It will entitle them to a full range of state benefits such as health care.
Almost all Ukrainians say they wish to return to their homeland and rebuild it when the war ends. But no one knows when or how that will happen. No one knows how much of Ukraine will end up under Russian occupation, or too dangerous to pass through. Some Ukrainians may be unable to return from abroad. Some may remain trapped inside Ukraine and unable to escape.
Now that cluster bombs have started to fall on Ukrainian cities, the exodus may accelerate. But at border crossings, there is also traffic in the other direction. Scores of Ukrainians, most of them without military experience, are heading home to enlist. “I haven’t been able to sleep or to work for two nights,” says Volodymyr Balychok, 23, a construction worker, waiting at passport control. “I won’t be able to look other Ukrainians in the eye unless I go back and fight,” he says. Eva Kravchuk, also 23, who runs an advertising agency in Warsaw, organized a convoy carrying supplies for the refugees. She too plans to cross. “I was supposed to fly to Ukraine on March 2nd to get a machine gun,” she says before flights were canceled. Her mother, who now lives in her basement in Cherkasy, a city in central Ukraine, does not want her to go. “I can’t leave her there.”