By Alicja Ptak and Fedja Grulovic
MEDYKA, Poland/SIGHETU MARMATIEI, Romania (Reuters) – A growing tide of Ukrainian refugees fleeing a brutal Russian invasion streamed into central Europe on Thursday, as volunteers and officials speeded up efforts to process arrivals whose numbers a U.N. official said had crossed the one million mark.
With Russian forces intent on advancing towards Kyiv and bombing some other Ukrainian cities into wastelands, the U.N. refugee agency also said the conflict looked set to trigger Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.
In the week since President Vladimir Putin ordered the biggest attack on a European state since 1945, most escaping Ukrainians have crossed into the European Union – membership of which their country aspires to – in eastern Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary and northern Romania.
Authorities and volunteers across central European border crossings have pitched tents to provide medical aid and process asylum papers and sought to make the entry as smooth as possible for weary Ukrainians harrowing journeys to flee war.
“I’ve been to Bangladesh. This is as bad as it was (coping with refugees) in Bangladesh,” said Morteza Eshghparast, a volunteer for Help Dunya, a German NGO, while waiting in line to re-enter Ukraine at the Medyka crossing, Poland’s busiest, along its roughly 500-kilometre (310-mile) border with Ukraine.
Volunteers stationed there handed out hot beverages and sandwiches to weary looking refugees, some of whom travelled for days on end to escape the fighting.
Poland, whose Ukrainian community of around 1 million is the region’s largest, has around 575,000 Ukrainian refugees so far officials estimate. Nearly 100,000 crossed on Wednesday alone.
‘FAMILIES HAD TO BE SEPARATED’
With men of conscription age obliged to stay and help in the defence, mostly women and children have crossed into the European Union from regional crossings.
“We are from Lviv and we decided to flee because we often heard air raid alarms,” said Natasha, 23, who fled with her mother in a car and waited two days on the Slovak border. “We took our possessions and fled.”
Russia calls its actions in Ukraine a “special operation” not designed to occupy territory but to destroy its neighbour’s military capabilities and capture what it regards as dangerous nationalists.
At the Sighetu Marmatiei crossing in Romania, to where officials said more than 139,000 Ukrainians have fled, Dmitry Rubanov waited with a pair of binoculars after travelling from London to meet his sister Natasha Borzenkova and her two daughters.
They had fled from the heavily shelled city of Kharkiv.
“I had to leave my husband behind because he is not allowed to go through the border and I had to leave my parents behind because we have older relatives who they have to look after,” Borzenkova said after reuniting with her brother.
“…A lot of families had to be separated.”
Across central Europe, where memories of Moscow’s dominance after World War Two run deep, thousands of volunteers have converged on the borders, bringing food, clothes and blankets.
Many have opened their homes and hotels or offered vacant apartments to displaced Ukrainians, while a church in Warsaw said it would start celebrating a Sunday mass in Ukrainian and a Polish cinema chain offered a free daily showing for refugee children.
FINDING A PLACE TO SLEEP
In Warsaw, city officials have prioritised finding places to sleep for refugees, saying that 11 trains carrying Ukrainians from the border arrived overnight.
“We’re focusing on making sure that hundreds of people aren’t forced to stay at the train stations,” city council spokeswoman Monika Beuth-Lutyk said. “Organising child care, schools and assistance to find jobs will come later.”
Hungary has set up a government working group to provide jobs for Ukrainians as there are close to 80,000 vacancies in Hungary and the shortage is especially serious in construction, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff said on Thursday.
Hungarian police data show that around 127,000 entered Hungary from Ukraine since Feb. 24.
(additional reportinb by Jan Lopatka in Michalovce, Slovakia, Anna Wlodarczak-Semczuk and Marek Strzelecki in Warsaw, Luiza Ilie in Bucharest, Krisztina Than in Budapest, Writing by Michael Kahn, Editing by)