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Dispatch from Odesa: Ukraine’s refugee crisis is just getting started

Returning to a city I love in a country that is under attack, as refugees flee the war in Ukraine.

By Vladislav Davidzon

I have recently returned to my adopted hometown of Odesa, the city that is the backdrop for my first book. Crossing the Moldovan border into Ukraine, I received the news that the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the Moskva, had been sunk by a pair of Ukrainian anti-ship missiles. This meant that the pressure on the city from the naval forces lying just offshore had been relieved, and with the Russian army stalled outside Mykolaiv, approximately 130 kilometres east of Odesa, the city authorities have begun dismantling some of the sandbags and fortifications that had been erected. I was still based in the city when the battle for the Donbas began on 18 April, but around a third of the population has left, with many people heading for Moldova or elsewhere in Europe.

The brutal war the Russian army launched against Ukraine on 24 February has unleashed the largest movement of people that Europe has seen in many years. The current crisis looks set to dwarf that triggered by the war in Syria in 2015. Between four and five million Ukrainians have already left the country. As many as nine million are now internally displaced. Over the past two months I have observed this crisis from every vantage point – as a journalist, as a concerned relative helping distant relations to get out, and having been treated as a refugee myself when I arrived in a Romanian border camp under the auspices of the Romanian Red Cross. My own family is historically from Ukraine, as is my wife. I inherited a Russian passport, which I burned in front of the Russian embassy in Paris after first leaving Ukraine in mid-March, but I am an American citizen who travelled regularly between Ukraine and France before the war began.

The inspiring examples of Ukrainian resilience, sacrifice and cohesion have served to bring out the best among Europeans. At least for now. As Ukrainian men of fighting age are still not allowed to leave, the refugee wave has been dominated by women and children. This is perhaps one of the reasons that people have been so gracious in their reception. All 27 European Union governments quickly decided to take in Ukrainians in need and offer them temporary residency. A Europe-wide Temporary Protection Directive was quickly issued, allowing Ukrainians to settle almost anywhere in the EU. Under that directive, they also qualify for extensive social and economic support, depending on which country they end up in. Perhaps half are interested in staying in Poland, which has for linguistic and historical reasons become the central staging point for Ukrainians.

In recent weeks, I have spent time in Chișinău, Bucharest and Warsaw.  The Polish capital is the one that is most full of Ukrainian flags and billboards announcing solidarity with the Ukrainian people. One can hear Ukrainian and Russian spoken all over the streets, and I have run into acquaintances from Odesa and Kyiv at the supermarket and the dentist’s office. The registration form at the latter now comes in a choice of Ukrainian, English and Polish. I also observed workmen carrying supplies and paint into the lift; an entire floor was being converted by the government to serve as a free clinic for Ukrainian refugees. “Everybody is doing something, all of us,” Poland’s prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, told me. “Every Polish family has taken someone in.”

[See also: “Russian soldiers asked my parents why they were leaving Ukraine”]

With the exception of the British government, which has been criticised for not keeping up, almost every other European nation has also taken swift action. Despite the political backlash against the decision to admit large numbers of refugees from Syria in 2015, the German government seems poised to take in up to a million people, although in practice the numbers arriving there from Ukraine are likely to be much lower. Still, having placed some of my own relatives there, I can attest that it was a relatively painless process, in terms of the bureaucracy involved at least.

The number of new arrivals at European border-crossing points appears to be subsiding. When I drove by a Moldovan tent city on the border on 14 April, it was no longer operational. The “intense and crazy part of the refugee flows had more or less concluded by the end of March”, one of the Ukrainian border guards told me, and one could “get through the border in a few hours now”. There is also evidence that many Ukrainian refugees are interested in returning to their cities, especially after the Ukrainian victory in the battle of Kyiv. There are recent reports that returning residents are even causing traffic and logistical issues for the Ukrainian army. Someone in Odesa joked to me over breakfast that she returned because “the air sirens are better than the drudgery of life in a small town in Bulgaria”.

In the lobby of my Warsaw hotel, which was two-thirds filled with Ukrainian families, I met Harriet Asher, a British activist in her thirties dressed in a chic lime-hued coat. She worked for a tech start-up before the Covid pandemic, but was now one of numerous private citizens who had congregated in Warsaw to help people whom they had never met before. She was on the way to the airport to pick up four Ukrainian refugees whom she had sponsored for immigration – she had paid for their flight tickets and travel costs and had photocopies of their passports on her phone. She was displeased by what she saw as the failure of her government to match her industry, efficiency and generosity of spirit.

“One lady who I am getting here is 37 weeks pregnant and is about to give birth!” Asher told me. She explained that they were able to enter the UK because of the British family-visa scheme, but that only Ukrainians with family in the UK – which most of them do not have – were eligible for now. “I made a connection with their family in the UK and they will meet them in the airport,” she said. “It is a very well-organised operation!” A day later she sent me a photo of the Ukrainian refugees meeting their relatives at London’s Heathrow airport. They wrapped Asher in a grateful embrace.

[See also: Why Putin’s war in Ukraine turned into a military disaster]

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