Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, two and a half million Ukrainians had to leave their country and became refugees. The numbers are growing every day, especially with the indiscriminate shelling of civilian populations, the purpose of which is precisely to sow panic and incite flight.
A new refugee crisis has been created, this time coming from Europe itself, and adding to the millions of migrants and refugees in the Continent who are still waiting to normalize their lives.
To explain what is happening these days in Ukraine, Ethnic Media Services convened a briefing where reporters and editors from California’s ethnic press were able to learn about the situation from journalist Manuel Ortiz, founder and director of Peninsula 360 Press, a news collaborative based in Redwood City, San Mateo County, California, who reported from the scene in Ukraine.
Natalia Banulescu Bogdan
Natalia Banulescu Bogdan, associate director of the MPI Institute for the Study of Migration, opened the conference.
She provided updated data on the magnitude of the migration problem. Of the 2.5 million people who left Ukraine, 1.5 million are in Poland.
“Since before the conflict Ukrainians were already part of the labor force in Europe, in fact they constitute 65% of the people with work permits who and coming from non-European Union (EU) countries. Likewise, they are the number one in international students.
Refugees are almost always women, the elderly and children, because young people of military age cannot leave the country. This is the reverse of what usually happens, when men are the first to arrive as refugees.
All this, not counting the hundreds of thousands of refugees inside Ukraine.
In addition, there are more than 450,000 foreigners in Ukraine, more than half of them international students from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.
Evacuation in itself is not as difficult as that from other countries. Nations bordering Ukraine have open borders. And Ukrainians since 2017 have been allowed to stay for 90 days in U.S. countries, if they have biometric passports and documentation certifying their citizenship.
They are now going to qualify for temporary protected status, which gives them legal stay for up to three years. This is based on a decision unanimously accepted by the Council of Europe just a week ago.
This means that they will be provided with medical assistance as well as access to education for the children. It came into effect on March 4 with an expiration date of one year, and can be extended for several subsequent six-month periods.
Extensions will be granted until conditions for return are secure.
This is the first time that the European Union has applied this protected status; until now it was done by each member country separately. It was not even invoked in 2015-2016, when refugees from Syria arrived.
It also applies to foreign citizens coming from Ukraine who were already refugees there and cannot return to their home countries. In contrast, international students and temporary workers are not protected by these regulations.
Other countries outside the European bloc, such as Australia, the United States or Canada announced related regulations. Among them, allowing visa extensions more easily for Ukrainians already in those countries, and facilitating the reunification of their families.
It is not an easy process regarding the decision of where to go or the information refugees possess. There are huge backlogs.
There are also questions about the living conditions in the receiving places. It’s just that this flow is really unprecedented.
Most of the countries that are receiving the refugees are from Eastern Europe and they don’t have the capacity to absorb these numbers of people, especially those without a clear destination.
The first ones who left their country were reunited with Ukrainians who were already in Europe. But now most of the refugees do not have families outside. And they need everything, housing and services.
You begin to see a fatigue of the initial generosity. At the same time, the integration capacity of the countries is already being exhausted. They have a finite amount of resources. We are going to see a decline in support for refugees around the world.”
From Lviv in western Ukraine, Manuel Ortiz reported a difficult situation that is rapidly worsening. “It is very difficult to get here. There is a very large flow of people, and also of those who want to enter Ukraine, bringing medicine or food.
There were two attacks today, for the first time near the city and the border with Poland. Another one happened near the border with Romania. This changes the situation, because until now people considered these cities as safe places.”
Showing photos of Ukranians getting off the train they boarded to get to this border city, Ortiz explained that “it took them 30 hours to get there from other cities in Ukraine. They go to a Metro station and there they wait to say where they want to go, Poland or Romania. This is the first line, where they have to wait for hours and it is very cold.
Then a bus takes them close to the border but they still have to walk a long way. Most of them are women with children and old people and the walk is difficult.
Then they have to make another two- or three-hour line to get a stamp on their documentation.”
“There are a lot of children,” Ortiz said, “but I haven’t seen their parents or whole families.
Many people come without food and they are hungry, you see them waiting in lines for food given to them by Polish volunteers. It is not the Polish government that gives help, but private individuals, members of NGOs operating on the border and others.
Afterwards, people meet with immigration agents. The borders are open to everyone, but Ukrainians are first and non-Ukrainians have to wait an additional five to six hours. Some of those do not even have passports.
On the Polish side there are shelters, but they are not full. Many people sleep in the homes of people who open their doors to them.
At the beginning of the conflict, there were few Ukrainians who wanted to leave because they did not believe they would be attacked. That is over and the places where people thought the Russians would not come have already been shelled.
People want to talk to the reporter. Few speak English among the Poles, but in Ukraine everybody speaks English.
And although I found a restaurant open here in Ukraine, many businesses are closed,
You see a lot of checkpoints, where they don’t allow you to take pictures. They erect barricades with tanks and trucks. There is no normal life anymore.
Here in Lviv there is food, some farmers’ markets are still open, although not as much as on the Polish side. But the arriving refugees went many hours without a bite to eat.
And in many places the power was cut off.”