A permanent downturn or a temporary lull in the storm of war?
While the number of refugees who have left Ukraine is approaching 4 million, fewer people have crossed the border in recent days. Border guards, aid agencies and refugees themselves say Russia’s unpredictable war against Ukraine offers few signs, whether it is a simple pause or a permanent stop.
Some Ukrainians hold on to fight or help defend their country. Others have left their homes but remain elsewhere in Ukraine to wait and see how the winds of war will blow. Still others are elderly or ill and need extra help getting around. And some stay, as one refugee put it, because “homeland is homeland”.
In the first two weeks after Russia invaded on February 24, about 2.5 million of Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million left the country to avoid bombs and bloodshed. Over the next two weeks, the number of refugees fell by about half.
The total exodus now stands at 3.87 million, according to the latest tally announced Monday by UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, which includes figures up to Sunday. But in the past 24 hours, just 45,000 people have crossed Ukraine’s borders to seek safety, the slowest one-day tally yet.
“People who were determined to leave when the war broke out fled in the first days,” said Anna Michalska, spokeswoman for the Polish border guards.
Even if the exodus is attenuated, its extent cannot be underestimated.
According to the UNHCR, the war has triggered the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, and the speed and scale of refugees fleeing to countries such as Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia – as well as Russia – are unprecedented in recent times. Poland alone has taken in 2.3 million refugees and Romania nearly 600,000. The United States has pledged to take in 100,000.
Even the devastating 11-year war in Syria, the source of the world’s largest refugee crisis, has not expelled so many people so quickly.
The International Organization for Migration recently estimated that around 6.5 million people in Ukraine were driven from their homes by the Russian invasion but remain internally displaced, suggesting that a large number of potential refugees is still waiting. The IOM said another 12 million people would be trapped in places where fighting has been intense or unwilling to leave.
Jewish groups have begun an effort to bring back fragile Holocaust survivors out of Ukraine, but every person needs a rescue team to extract these refugees.
“Now I’m too old to run to the bunker. So I just stayed inside my apartment and prayed the bombs wouldn’t kill me,” said Tatyana Zhuravliova, an 83-year-old Holocaust survivor, a retired doctor who transferred last week in a retirement home in Germany.
Michalska, the spokeswoman for the Polish border guards, suggested that many Ukrainians who had fled had left the areas most affected by the war, and that future fighting could determine whether other civilians in other regions decide to escape.
“We cannot rule out that there will be more waves of refugees in the future,” Michalska told The Associated Press.
—Srdjan Nedeljkovic and Jamey Keaten, Associated Press