Within one week of Russia’s invasion into Ukraine, at least one million people fled the country. Searching for safety as Russian forces continue their attacks, with no signs of stopping. And as of mid-March, that number reached more than 3 million. People have been finding refuge in neighboring countries to the West. But experts say this is just the beginning. Here’s what you need to know about the ongoing refugee crisis.
Where Refugees Are Headed And What Their Journey Is Like
With millions of people escaping violence, UN officials are warning this could turn into Europe's “largest refugee crisis” this century. More than half of those who’ve left Ukraine have fled to Poland. While others have gone to nearby countries like Romania, Slovakia, and Hungary.
Our “Skimm This” podcast team spoke with Serena Parekh, a professor of philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Northeastern University, about what’s been happening in Ukraine. She studies refugee crises, and has been closely watching the situation unfold. She called what’s happening in eastern Europe “a huge, huge displacement.”
People in Ukraine have had to make the difficult decision to stay put and face the violence…or leave their homes behind. “One morning, you wake up to shelling, to bombing. And you maybe have a few hours to decide…what are you going to do? Are you going to pack up what you can in your car and try to leave?” Parekh said.
People might remember to take their passport. But otherwise, Parekh said they’ll bring very little with them — including clothes, food, and money (if they have any on hand). “People will get in their cars with their children, infants, and toddlers and drive for hours and hours and hours. So you drive for two days and you finally get to the border, and then you have to wait in line for 40, 50, up to 70 hours.”
Fortunately, locals in neighboring countries have been kind enough to offer food. But even with their help, Parekh said that those fleeing are still fearing for their lives. They can still hear shelling during their journey. And it isn’t until days later, once they get over the border, that they’ll realize they’re safe.
“People just start crying and they realize all they've lost and all they've left behind and the absolute uncertainty of their future.”
PS: If you’re looking to help refugees fleeing Ukraine and others impacted by the war, here's a verified list of places to support or donate to.
Refugees of Color: The Discrepancies in Treatment Compared to White Refugees
As more people try to escape the humanitarian crisis that's unfolding, many point out that Europe has already been at the center of multiple refugee crises. People escaping conflict in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Africa have fled to the continent in recent years. And those refugees have had very different experiences than those fleeing Ukraine. And people are calling out the blatant disparities.
Example: In 2021, Polish troops used tear gas and water cannons on migrants from countries like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. And in January, Poland started building a wall along its border with Belarus so that refugees from the Middle East wouldn’t be able to enter the country. But now, Poland has opened its borders to Ukrainians — and said it will do “everything to provide safe shelter” for “everyone who needs it.”
But even in this current situation, some refugees have faced racism. There have been reports that African students trying to leave Ukraine have been held up at border crossings. While white Ukranians have been allowed to go forward. There’ve also been reports that Nigerians and South Africans fleeing the war in Ukraine have been pushed to the back of the line while attempting to leave.
Parekh also said some of the language European politicians and reporters are using to describe this current crisis is also contributing to the problem. She said reporters describe “Ukrainians as being civilized and implying by contrast that Syrians, Iraqis…are not civilized.”
“You also hear language like, ‘how can this be happening in Europe? This isn't like we're Afghanistan. It's not like we're Iraq and Syria.’ Implying…we Europeans aren't used to violence. [That] this is not something that we civilized people should have to endure. [That it] happens in other less developed places.”
But, she pointed out that there is some nuance to consider as we continue to watch the European response to displaced people. There’s no doubt racism is playing a role in this. But Parekh told us “there are important differences between this conflict and the war in Syria. In particular, Poland and Hungary know what it is to live under a Soviet aggression and Soviet repression…In a certain sense, their ability to identify with Ukrainians is a powerful one. It's built into their bones, into their history as well, it's their neighbors.”
In the end though, Parekh said that “both groups of people are fleeing incredibly brutal wars. The suffering of children, of families being separated, is no different.”
Ukrainian Refugees’ Impact on Europe
As more people continue to escape Ukraine and the conflict continues, some experts said this crisis could test European systems like never before.
Parekh acknowledged that the solidarity around Ukraine could break down if the number of people fleeing becomes unmanageable, and resources become scarce. But she thinks that people will continue to show their support — and the US and EU will play an important role in helping coordinate resettlements for those who need it. All of which could be an example for how to handle these situations in the future.
“I hope the lesson we take from that is that it is, in fact, possible to welcome and receive large numbers of refugees and ultimately host them for the duration of their conflict in dignified, humane ways for other refugee crises down the road.”
The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has forced millions of people to leave their homes, and sometimes loved ones, behind. As the war continues, the world continues to lend a hand to those most impacted. And all of this has put the spotlight on an obvious statement: all refugees are human beings...and should be treated that way.
PS: For more on our conversation with Serena Parekh, check out our “Skimm This” episode.
More Coverage of the Russia-Ukraine Conflict
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"Skimm This." Listen to our news podcast for expert context on the crisis.
Expert advice on what to do if the conflict is weighing on you.
Updated on March 17 to reflect the latest number of refugees fleeing Ukraine.
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