Russia launches a three-pronged attack on Ukraine and border states prepare for refugees fleeing westwards.

Ukraine Border States Prepare for Wave of Refugees

A traffic jam in Kyiv, Ukraine, 24 February 2022. EPA-EFE/SERGEY DOLZHENKO

The border states of Ukraine – EU members Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Romania as well as EU aspirant Moldova – have all announced preparations for the expected wave of refugees from Ukraine as Russia launches a full-scale invasion of the country.

At midday on Thursday there were already reports from Poland about trains arriving in Warsaw this morning full of Ukrainians, with some saying these tickets were purchased days ago in expectation of a Russian invasion.

Polish Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Pawel Szefernaker announced on Thursday morning that Poland is opening eight reception centres for Ukrainian refugees in the two regions closest to the border. At these locations, refugees would receive food, medical help and information.

In the past few weeks, Polish municipalities across the country have been analysing their temporary accommodation capacities that could be made available to Ukrainians in the event of an influx.

With over a million Ukrainians already living in the country and the longest EU border with Ukraine, Poland is certain to become a main destination of Ukrainians fleeing the fighting. Anecdotal reports suggest Ukrainian families are already looking for shelter in Poland.

Earlier this week, representatives of the European Commission assessed that Poland was “well prepared” to receive refugees from Ukraine and promised more support if needed. The European Commission has only given vague estimates of the number of Ukrainians that might potentially flee, anywhere from 20,000 to over 1 million. Polish politicians have been also referring to the figure of 1 million as an estimate of the number they expect might be coming.

In the past, the nationalist Polish government has been open to migration from nearby countries like Ukraine and Belarus, even as it fiercely opposed receiving people from the Middle East or Africa. That fact, as well as the existence of a strong and well-organised Ukrainian community here, means refugees stand a good chance of receiving support once they cross the border.

With reports of Ukrainian refugees massing at border crossings, the Slovak Interior Ministry announced the country is ready to accommodate anyone fleeing the war being waged by Russia next door. Entry to Slovakia will also be allowed to persons even without a valid passport if they pass individual assessments carried out by the border police, the ministry said in a statement. The number of border crossings will also be expanded with so-called “hotspots”.

“We can almost certainly assume that the Russian aggression will drive out many Ukrainians from their country, so let’s have compassion and understanding for them,” Slovak Prime Minister Eduard Heger said after an emergency meeting held on Thursday morning by the country’s Security Council.

The prime minister added that everyone fleeing the war deserves help according to international law. “Slovakia will responsibly adhere to the principles of humanity and solidarity, just like others did when our parents and grandparents were fleeing war and invasion,” he said.

Nearly all border crossings with Ukraine remained operational as of Thursday morning, though waiting times are mounting. People were waiting up to two hours at the crossing point in Vysne Nemecke, the Financial Administration informed. At another crossing in Ubla, the waiting time ramped up to 240 minutes for passenger traffic and 90 minutes for pedestrians, the TASR newswire reported. The only crossing point closed on Thursday morning was the railway border near the town of Cierna nad Tisou, as all passenger trains bound for Ukraine were halted until further notice, the national rail carrier announced

The Slovak Defence Ministry previously said that it was ready to deploy 1,500 troops to assist the border police with handling the stream of refugees from Ukraine. The Interior Ministry also confirmed that it was expanding available accommodation for those in need.

The Hungarian government has stated it is particularly interested in the security of the 130,000-strong Hungarian minority living in the Transcarpathian region (Zakarpattia Oblast) of southwest Ukraine, who could decide to flee to Hungary if the situation deteriorates.

Local media has reported that people from Zakarpattia Oblast are already headed towards Hungary, with long lines at petrol stations along the route. Migration Aid, a humanitarian aid NGO, wrote on Facebook that there is a massive wave of people leaving Kyiv and moving westward, and Hungary should brace itself for “car convoys” of refugees appearing at the border.

It is still unclear whether Hungary will amend its current legislation, which doesn’t allow for refugees to claim asylum in the country. In theory, refugees seeking asylum in Hungary should submit their applications at the embassy in Kyiv and wait for a response from the Budapest-based immigration authority, the National-Directorate General of Alien Policing, before entering the country. That is obviously not feasible in the current situation.

The Hungarian government earlier announced that it would deploy troops to the eastern border with the task of helping any refugees, implying the traditional anti-refugee position is no longer valid, or at least not for those coming from Ukraine. Defence Minister Tibor Benko said earlier that Hungary is preparing to receive several tens of thousands of refugees, though in a document spotted by the government is not ruling out having to meet the challenge of 600,000 people arriving from Ukraine. Budapest Mayor Gergely Karacsony has also announced he is taking all necessary preparations for accepting refugees.

Like his V4 peers, Czech Prime Minister Petr Fiala said last week that Czechia is ready to help by accepting Ukrainian refugees. While Czechia is the only one of the quartet not to share a border with Ukraine, Prague has also said it will send police units to help control Slovakia’s eastern border. Unlike refugees from war-torn nations further afield, Ukrainians are likely to be generally welcomed by Czech society, say NGOs.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu on Thursday said Moldova would introduce a state of emergency and was ready to accept tens of thousands of people coming from neighbouring Ukraine. Dozens of cars were already queuing on the border between Ukraine and Moldova, according to local media.

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