Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion have begun to trickle into Poland and Rmania, with dozens of people arriving at the normally placid Medyka border crossing with Poland on Thursday.
Local media from countries bordering Ukraine report that small numbers of refugees are beginning to arrive after crossing the border, carrying luggage and some with children accompanying them.
The UN’s High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) issued a statement on Thursday saying “We are gravely concerned about the fast-deteriorating situation and ongoing military action in Ukraine. The humanitarian consequences on civilian populations will be devastating. Civilian lives and civilian infrastructure must be protected and safeguarded at all times. We stand ready to support efforts by all to respond to any situation of forced displacement.”
Ukrainian refugees started leaving country in 2014; new wave expected
“We are following the situation very closely; however, the situation remains unpredictable,” says Natalia Prokopchuk, a communications and advocacy officer for UNHCR Europe.
She added “In the meantime, the UN and its humanitarian partners in Ukraine hope that the ongoing tensions will not escalate and will be resolved through diplomatic and political means among all concerned parties.”
Alexander Bazhanov, who fled his home in eastern Ukraine with his wife and young child, taking with them only what they could carry and walking the last leg of their journey into Poland, spoke with Reuters about his family’s plight.
The 34-year-old technical manager, who hails from Mariupol, a city founded by Greeks which lies 113 km (70 miles) from Donetsk, says that he made the decision to leave his city — which is still home to some 100,000 Greeks — after he learned the war had started in earnest.
“I don’t have any feelings other than that I am very scared,” Bazhanov told reporters who spoke to him at the pedestrian border crossing at Medyka, approximately 400 km from Warsaw. “I will visit my father in Spain but I don’t have any money and I don’t know how I will do that,” he admitted.
The central European nations which share a border with Ukraine have been bracing for the expected flood of refugees who they believed would soon be flooding their borders, looking for a safe refuge from the fighting.
In normal times, the Medyka crossing is used by those who want to do some shopping across the border or those who must travel for work.
UNHCR, Catholic Church ready to help in Poland
“Everybody thought western Ukraine was safe because it was close to EU and NATO nations,” said Maria Palys, 44, who was traveling with her family and that of her brother in an interview with Reuters. However, she added wistfully, “It seems like it is not the right protection.”
Russia invaded the two breakaway oblasts that are part of the Donbass area in eastern Ukraine on Monday, waging war on the Ukrainian heartland on Wednesday night with shelling and shooting down planes belonging to the Ukraine military.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had stated that his country could not tolerate the Ukrainian people opting to join the NATO alliance, a move that may have placed NATO troops near its border with Russia.
Polish Catholics and those in Western Ukraine are already preparing to provide refuge for Ukrainians who now find themselves displaced, according to Catholic News Service (CNS).
Archbishop Stanislaw Gadecki of Poznan, Poland, the president of the Polish bishop’s conference, has appealed to his countrymen “for open and hospitable hearts for refugees from Ukraine who will seek refuge from war in Poland.” Meanwhile, Polish churches are busy preparing support programs and facilities for Ukrainian refugees who seek help in the neighboring country.
CNS reports that Archbishop Mieczyslaw Mokrzycki from Lviv in Western Ukraine, is preparing his churches to welcome refugees from the eastern part of the country, adding that his flock is ready to welcome refugees with food, water, and housing. Vacant homes have already been rented for potential use as shelters. In addition, he says, churches under his jurisdiction have already “organized first-aid courses for priests, religious and laypeople to care for the injured if necessary.”
Poland’s deputy interior minister, Maciej Wąsik told Polish radio this week “We have to be prepared for a wave of up to a million people.”
The country has already attracted is approximately 2 million Ukrainians, many of whom went there after the 2014 conflict. The Polish government has disclosed it is planning to house Ukrainian refugees in hostels, dormitories and sports facilities, according to The Guardian.
Slovakia, Romania also preparing for possible refugees from Ukraine
Slovakia is preparing its armed forces to help handle any possible flow of refugees from Ukraine, Defense Minister Jaroslav Nad said on Tuesday.
Slovakia, which borders Ukraine in the east and is both a member of NATO and the European Union, has not reported any increased refugee movement at its frontier.
Nad said Slovakia would have enough capacity to deal with any influx of Ukrainian refugees and although he said it was still impossible to make any estimates yet, the country would be ready for any developments.
“We are in the process of increasing combat readiness but the primary reason is the potential threat of migration and not the threat of war,” he said after a meeting of Slovakia’s state security council.
Nad said security forces were also seeing more cyber threats and hybrid activity coming from Russia, while Slovak President Zuzana Caputova said that cases of disinformation and propaganda from Russia were rising in Slovakia as well.
The country has supported EU allies in sanctions that were meant to deter a Russian offensive in Ukraine.
In Romania, Defense Minister Vasile Dincu said the country has planned for an influx of over 500,000 refugees. “There is a plan prepared for all large cities, there are areas for this near the borders,” he said.
The country’s interior minister, Lucian Bode, told TV B1 that Romanian authorities were looking at the possibility of “hundreds of thousands of refugees in an uncontrolled influx” coming into the country.
“We are currently analysing how many refugee camps we can install in a relatively short time: 10, 12, 24 hours. We are analysing existing lodging capacities in border counties but we are also discussing the second stage, with neighbouring counties, and the third stage across the country,” he added.