| 21 April 2024, Sunday |

Europe girds for Ukrainian refugees from cities under bombardment

Eastern Europe braced for a surge of refugees from shelled towns and cities in Ukraine on Thursday, as fighting erupted in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion, and the UN said more than 2.3 million people had fled the country.

Ukraine hoped to begin evacuating civilians through seven “humanitarian corridors” on Thursday, a day after a children’s hospital was hit in a Russian air strike on the southern port city of Mariupol, where thousands are trapped without access to water, medicine, or food.

But Ukraine’s foreign minister said Moscow had refused during talks on Thursday to guarantee humanitarian access to rescue civilians trapped under bombardment.

Both sides have blamed the other for the failure of previous evacuation attempts. Russia has dismissed the bombing of the hospital as “fake news”. The regional governor said 17 people were wounded.

“We’ve only seen the beginning, unfortunately, and I think there will be many millions more,” European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson told Swedish radio.

Valera, a carpenter in his 50s and one of the few men to enter from Ukraine where those of conscription age are generally obliged to stay, watched nervously as his daughter Anna was carried on a stretcher at a crossing point into Poland.

It was two days since they left Ukraine’s second largest city Kharkiv, where Anna, 24, who has cerebral palsy, broke her leg as they rushed to a bomb shelter.

“There is positional fighting during the day, air raids in the evenings, they are shelling from everything, fighter aircraft,” he said, declining to give his full name. “The centre (of Kharkiv) is ruined, the outskirts have already been bombed.”

He and Anna are headed for Dresden, Germany, where another daughter is waiting.

Authorities and volunteers across central and eastern Europe have spent the past two weeks scrambling to provide food, accommodation and medical aid to the many thousands of refugees pouring across their borders.

“We’re getting ready for refugees from the war zones,” said Witold Wolczyk from the mayor’s office in Przemysl, a town just west of Poland’s Medyka border crossing, which has become a major transit hub for refugees.

“We have psychologists on the spot. They have not been that busy so far. If it turns out we need more professionals to help traumatized people, we will look for them.”

During a visit to Medyka, International Organization for Migration Director-General Antonio Vitorino called for humanitarian corridors to be established and guaranteed by both Russia and Ukraine.

“…Not just evacuating people who want to leave the cities that are under attack, but also to be able to provide food, non-food items, water, to those who are willing to stay in those cities,” he said.


The Polish Border Guard said on Thursday that 1.43 million people had entered the country from Ukraine since Russia invaded its neighbour on Feb. 24. President Vladimir Putin has said his “special military operation” aims to “de-nazify” Ukraine, a position dismissed by the West as baseless propaganda.

Nearly 350,000 people have crossed into Romania from Ukraine while well over 150,000 have reached Slovakia and Hungary, local statistics showed.

Nadezda, a 48-year-old woman from Kharkiv who declined to give her surname, walked into Poland on Thursday, looking to join her two daughters who had already made it across.

“We will try to settle somehow, see what’s available and try to live,” she said as she came away from the Medyka crossing, hobbled by a broken heel and clutching two small bags.

Refugees’ hopes of being able to return home one day have been fading with each day of the invasion. “Kharkiv is gone, half of the city has been destroyed, there’s nothing to come back to,” Nadezda said.

Authorities and NGOs in Poland have voiced concern that vulnerable refugees could fall victim to crime, including passport theft or attempts to force them into begging, stealing or prostitution, and have set up a 24/7 helpline advertised on posters at refugee reception centres.

Irena Dawid-Olczyk, who heads the Warsaw-based NGO La Strada which fights human trafficking, said there were no confirmed case of that scourge so far but prevention was key.

“I’m not afraid that people will suffer here (border areas), but rather that people will be moved on to Western Europe. We are in crisis, so an orphanage in sunny Spain may sound good, but it may be a trap,” she said.

  • Reuters