A slowdown for good or a temporary lull during the storm of war?
While the number of refugees who have flooded out of Ukraine nears 4 million, fewer people have crossed the border in recent days. Border guards, aid agencies and refugees themselves say Russia’s unpredictable war on Ukraine offers few signs whether it’s just a pause or a permanent drop-off.
Some Ukrainians are sticking it out to fight or help defend their country. Others have left their homes but are staying elsewhere in Ukraine to wait and see how the winds of war will blow. Still others are elderly or ill and need extra help moving anywhere. And some remain, as one refugee put it, because “homeland is homeland.”
In the first two weeks after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, about 2.5 million people in Ukraine’s pre-war population of 44 million left the country to avoid the bombs and bloodshed. In the second two weeks, the number of refugees was roughly half that.
The total exodus now stands at 3.87 million, according to the latest tally announced Monday from UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency. But in the previous 24 hours, only 45,000 people crossed Ukraine’s borders to seek safety, the slowest one-day count yet, and for four of the last five days the numbers have not surpassed 50,000 a day. In contrast, on March 6 and March 7, over 200,000 people a day left Ukraine.
“People who were determined to leave when war breaks out fled in the first days,” explained Anna Michalska, a spokeswoman for the Polish border guards.
Even if the exodus is easing, there’s no understating the scope of it.
UNHCR says the war has triggered Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II, and the speed and breadth of refugees fleeing to countries including Poland, Romania, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia — as well as Russia — is unprecedented in recent times. Poland alone has taken in 2.3 million refugees and Romania nearly 600,000. The United States has vowed to take in 100,000.
Even the devastating 11-year war in Syria, source of the world’s biggest refugee crisis, didn’t force out so many people so fast.
“We hope that hopefully the trend of new arrivals will decrease. But I don’t think there’s any guarantee of that until there’s a political solution” to the war, said Alex Mundt, UNHCR’s senior emergency coordinator in Poland.
The International Organization for Migration has also estimated that more 6.5 million people in Ukraine have been driven from their homes by the Russian invasion but remain displaced inside the country, suggesting that a large pool of potential refugees still awaits. IOM said another 12 million people are believed to be trapped in places where fighting has been intense, or don’t want to leave.
“Sadly, there are a lot of people who are not able to leave, either because transportation routes have been cut off or they just don’t have the means arrive to safety in the neighboring countries,” IOM spokesman Jorge Galindo told The Associated Press in Medyka, a Polish border town.
Jewish groups have begun an effort to bring frail Holocaust survivors out of Ukraine, but each person requires a team of rescue workers to extract such refugees.
“Now I’m too old to run to the bunker. So I just stayed inside my apartment and prayed that the bombs would not kill me,” said 83-year-old Holocaust survivor Tatyana Zhuravliova, a retired doctor who was relocated to a nursing home in Germany last week.
Michalska, the Polish border guard spokeswoman, suggested that many Ukrainians who have already fled have left the areas most affected by the fighting, and future battles could determine whether civilians in other areas decide to leave.
“We cannot exclude that there will be more waves of refugees in the future,” Michalska said by phone.
Aid agencies are not letting up in their efforts, helping those who have already gotten out of Ukraine and preparing in case new surges of refugees arrive.
At the border post in Medyka, Poland, shopping trolleys filled with luggage still rattle down a small path leading from passport control, through a village of aid tents to buses waiting to carry Ukrainian refugees to a nearby town.
“Maybe people are waiting it out, to see if their city will get attacked or not,” said Alina Beskrovna, 31, who fled the devastated, besieged southeastern city of Mariupol. She and her mother left the city five days ago but even to get to the border they had to cross 18 checkpoints: 16 Russian and two Ukrainian.
She alluded to new Russian airstrikes over the weekend near Ukraine’s western city of Lviv, which has been a key refuge for Ukrainians fleeing after the invasion ordered by Russian President Vladmir Putin.
“Putin is very unpredictable. And judging from what happened in Lviv two days ago, I think it will not stop in my region, it will not stop at Ukraine,” she said. “It will go further, so the world should prepare for more waves to come.”
Oksana Mironova, a 35-year-old refugee from Kyiv, said: “It is not getting any better — definitely not. We would like to believe it will improve, but unfortunately we need to escape.”
Yet even in the face of Russian airstrikes that obliterate apartment buildings, shopping malls and schools, the pull of home remains strong.
Olena Vorontsova, 50, fled the capital of Kyiv.
“Many people just do not want to leave their homes, because homeland is homeland,” she said.