JEDDAH: On February 15, nine days before Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Antonio Guterres, the UN Secretary General, issued an ominous warning: “There is no alternative to diplomacy. The price of human suffering is too high to contemplate.
Two weeks later, the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, and countless other aid organizations are facing what appears to be the worst-case scenario Guterres hoped would be avoided.
In a message posted on Twitter on Monday, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, wrote: “More than 500,000 refugees have now fled from Ukraine to neighboring countries.”
His message was the latest update to a figure widely considered the most reliable indicator of the scale of human suffering and displacement caused by the Russian invasion, which began on February 24.
By all accounts, the exodus is set to far exceed the ‘refugee summer’ of 2015, when an estimated 1 million refugees and asylum seekers, most from Syrian war zones, made their way to Europe center, mainly in Germany.
Grandi conveyed his “sincere thanks to the governments and people of countries that keep their borders open” – but the crisis is still in its early stages and UNHCR said it plans to process up to 4 million refugees if the situation continues to deteriorate. Unless the direct talks between Russian and Ukrainian officials that began Monday in Belarus succeed in ending hostilities, the human tide flowing out of Ukraine is likely to continue to grow.
Janez Lenarcic, European Commissioner for Crisis Management, fears that the number of refugees could be even higher. He warned on Sunday that up to seven million people could be displaced and 18 million “humanitarianly affected”.
He added: “We are witnessing what could become the biggest humanitarian crisis on our European continent for many, many years.”
So far, five of Ukraine’s neighbors bear the brunt of the refugee crisis: Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova and Slovakia, all of which have been welcoming.
In Hungary, more than 60,000 Ukrainians passed through the border town of Zahony and continued to nearby villages and towns on the Eastern Great Plain.
A teenager who traveled with a group of family and friends to Hungary described to Arab News in a video call on Monday the shock of sudden displacement and the agony of leaving loved ones behind. . Lina, a 16-year-old from Ukraine’s capital Kyiv, is now staying in Debrecen with a couple who have opened their home to her group and another family, nine people in total.
She said she and her family were unharmed, but the journey was grueling and physically exhausting. The dangers along the way kept her, her cousin Bohdan, 15, and Natasha, a family friend acting as their guardian, constantly on edge as they traveled for four days, with minimal of sleep, to reach the border before the shelling worsens.
Her father and mother stayed behind when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky declared martial law, temporarily barring men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving the country, Lina said. She added that an exception had been granted for her 18-year-old brother, who has cerebral palsy.
The last few days have passed in limbo for Lina’s group. “When we were in kyiv, we didn’t know when the war would start, so we had food, water and some stuff,” she said. “Last Thursday, we woke up to learn that the war had started. We were afraid. We went to hide in the basement; there were three families in total, including three mothers and 11 children.
“We wanted to protect our family so we decided to leave the country or do anything to be safe because we didn’t know what was going to happen next.”
Lina says she hopes the war will end soon, that Ukraine will remain free and that she can go home. But for now, she said: “Our (family) is still here so we are worried about them.”
A positive development has been a palpable softening of attitudes towards refugees. Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, said: “Anyone who has to flee Putin’s (Russian President Vladimir) bombs will be welcomed with open arms.”
Just a few weeks ago, Poland, already home to 1.5 million Ukrainians before the Russian invasion, fortified its border with Belarus to prevent refugees and asylum seekers from Iraq and Afghanistan , as well as other migrants.
But on Sunday, the AFP news agency, citing Polish border guards, said 196,000 Ukrainians had already crossed the border, 50,000 of whom arrived on Friday alone. He said that 90% of the refugees are hosted by friends or relatives, and that nine reception centers have been established near the border.
Nancy Faeser, German Interior Minister, praised Poland for “having received refugees and doing it in an excellent way” and added: “We are now trying to support Poland logistically.”
Across Poland, people are mobilizing with offers of housing, money, clothes and work for newcomers, according to the AFP report.
However, many Ukrainians trying to leave their country have to queue at border crossings, some of which are said to be 40 miles long. At some of the 80 or more checkpoints, the process to get to the other side takes days.
For Petro Kranic, 62, and his wife Luba, for example, the relief they felt upon arriving at the border with Poland was mixed with disappointment when they had to wait an entire day to cross, even if their final destination was not Poland. but Estonia.
“On Thursday, as soon as the shelling started, we headed straight for Palats Sportu (a station on the kyiv metro line), where we took refuge for two nights,” Kranic told Arab News.
“When the situation seemed to get worse, we knew we had to leave. My wife’s sister, who lives and works in Estonia, had been asking us to come and stay with her ever since Russian troops started massing on Ukraine’s borders.
In addition to the threat of war, the Kranics couldn’t risk staying in Ukraine for another important reason: Luba has just completed a final round of breast cancer treatment and will need to undergo medical treatment.
Kranic said after an exhausting wait at the Polish border, they traveled to Lviv, a city in western Ukraine about 70 kilometers away, where they have relatives, before returning to the border to continue. their trip.
“It took us many hours before Ukrainian volunteers let us through,” he said. “A train journey that would normally take seven hours finally exceeded 15 hours.”
Most of Kranic’s family members are still in Ukraine as the men are of military age. One brother, a trucker who hauls goods across Europe, returns home to join the reserve, while another waits for a call for the reservists to report for work.
“They insist on staying back to defend their country,” Luba said. “None of us believed there would be an attack, but once it happened they decided to fight for the land they love and not lose it again.”