More than 4.5m more could join exodus if fighting spreads, according to Ukrainian authorities


Ukrainian refugees at border crossing
A volunteer distributes toys to Ukrainian children in Medyka, Poland, on Sunday. Photograph: Aleksander Kalka/Zuma Press Wire/Rex/Shutterstock


At least 368,000 people have already fled their homes in Ukraine, according to the UN refugee agency, and more than 4.5 million more could follow if the fighting spreads, Ukrainian authorities have said, with reports of tens of thousands on the move within the country itself.

The majority of people are fleeing to one of 12 border crossings Ukraine shares with its neighbour Poland, which by Sunday morning had registered 156,000 arrivals. Others are crossing at one of nine border points with Romania, or into Hungary, Slovakia or Moldova, according to figures collected by the UNHCR. Those with relatives elsewhere in Europe are trying to make their way to other destinations across the EU and beyond.

Most of those arriving are women, children and elderly people. They are carrying their belongings in rucksacks, plastic bags and suitcases, children are clutching cuddly toys, and some have pets under their arms. Reports from the border crossings have related tales of largely warm receptions, as people arrive often exhausted, some elated to be in safety and reunited with relatives, others distraught over what they have left behind.

An internal report by EU officials said there were lengthy waits at most borders, including up to 70 hours to cross into Poland and about seven hours to enter Slovakia, with many forced to sleep overnight in their cars in subzero temperatures.

The hold-ups were said to be linked to the sheer numbers trying to leave, and mainly due to delays on the Ukraine border, with officials there on orders to stop men between the ages of 18 and 60 from leaving. Polish authorities are said to be making the entry into the country as straightforward as possible. National willingness to receive Ukrainian refugees is very high due largely to the 1.5 million Ukrainians already resident in Poland and the strong cultural ties between the people.

Polish and German media reported cases of men bringing their wives and children as close to the border as possible, sometimes handing children over to their mothers or even to strangers who were then instructed to meet family members already in Poland, working or visiting relatives. Some men sought people they could trust to bring their families to safety, before hugging them goodbye and returning to Ukraine to fight.

At the border there are also plenty of men who have left their homes in Poland and elsewhere and are waiting to return home to their native Ukraine.

Janusz Wolski, a 70-year-old farmer from the region of Szczecin in Poland, told Der Spiegel he and his Ukrainian wife had driven 800km (500 miles) through the night with his son to pick up his daughter-in-law and his three young grandchildren from Lviv, who were due to arrive at the border crossing of Dorohusk, a village in eastern Poland. He said the plan was for his grandchildren to stay with him at least until the shooting stopped. “Who knows whether they will ever go back?” he told the magazine. “It is unbelievable what this criminal Putin is doing to the Ukrainians.”

Emergency camps are being constructed along the border regions and in addition thousands of residents of the host countries have been turning out to hand out blankets, water, bread, chocolate and coffee. Clean nappies for babies and medicines are also being supplied by local volunteers. Some have set up field kitchens and have been handing out bowls of goulash, while others hold up handwritten signs offering accommodation and transport.

EU home affairs ministers are to discuss how to provide humanitarian assistance in Ukraine. At least 17 member states have already offered medical equipment, tents and blankets after Kyiv requested aid from the EU’s civil protection mechanism on 15 February. An internal note circulated to national capitals, read: “All EU member states are called to respond to the best of their capacities to the request for assistance from the Ukrainian authorities.”

EU countries facing the largest number of arrivals have been told they can trigger the aid mechanism to request contributions from other member states to help them manage arrivals. The ministers will also look at giving a role to the EU’s border agency, Frontex, and the police agency, Europol, if, as expected, refugee numbers continue to grow.

In Germany, home to about 130,000 people with Ukrainian roots, a number of federal states have offered help. Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which borders Poland, and Berlin have promised help will be quick and unbureaucratic.

Before the crisis, Ukrainians were able to travel to the EU without a visa and to stay for 90 days. That has now been extended to 180 days.

As pictures of refugees arriving reminded Germans of the summer and autumn of 2015 when about 1 million people arrived in the country mainly from Syria, the national rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, announced that people from Ukraine would only need to show their passports to get free travel. All long-distance trains from Poland into Germany and up to Berlin would be free “in order to ease the onward journeys of people who are fleeing”, a spokesperson for the company said on Sunday.

Meanwhile, across the EU, ordinary people were accessing accommodation and neighbourhood assistance platforms as well as Facebook pages allowing Ukrainians and people who are offering space in their homes to connect with each other.