Shot & written for POLITICO Europe
More than two million people have so far fled Ukraine since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded it on February 24. With temperatures barely above freezing, more than half of those — mostly women and children — have escaped to Poland. The seemingly endless number of people streaming into Polish border towns are making their way by train, bus, car and even on foot. Any means will do when your country is a war zone.
Though many comparisons have been made between the current situation and the “refugee crisis” of 2015 — when more than a million people arrived at the European Union’s border from countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Iraq — newly displaced Ukrainians seem to be uniting Europe, rather than tearing it apart.
We are witnessing the Continent’s quickest and largest refugee intake since World War II. The U.N.’s Refugee Agency expects as many as 4 million people may flee as the conflict continues, but that figure could fall well short of reality.
And so every day on the border, an army of volunteers from Poland and across Europe greets new arrivals, handing out hot meals and pre-loaded SIM cards, then directing their new neighbors toward mounds of donated clothing and to former supermarket warehouses and car parks, now serving as temporary shelters.
Arrival points are lined with men holding up signs with European city names written in Ukrainian and English, helping to guide those traveling by bus or train. Posters and leaflets abound, warning Ukrainian women and children of the risk involved in accepting free transport — and the dangers of abuse and human trafficking.
It is an altogether different sort of welcome from what thousands of migrants and refugees faced earlier this year, attempting to cross from Belarus to Poland. They were met with fierce resistance from Polish border guards and soldiers rather than open arms.
Once Russia’s assault on the country began, non-Ukrainian citizens who had been living in the country were, of course, forced to flee as well. And their welcome at the border, according to many who spoke to POLITICO, was similarly icy. Many recounted interactions at border crossings that felt distinctly racist — at the hands of both Ukrainian and Polish authorities: White Ukrainian citizens were led to the front of the queue, while those who didn’t look the part were pushed to the back.
For those who make it across the border — more than a million so far — Przemyśl train station is their gateway to the EU. Special trains run, free of charge for Ukrainian passport holders, taking them to larger Polish cities like Warsaw and Krakow. From there, connecting trains can take them further west, and further from home.
There is chaos in the air, with so many lives suddenly uprooted and a war zone in the distance. But at the train station, a sense of calm, of relief, prevails: They’ve made it out — to safety — and Europe’s response has allowed them to stay.