Russia-Ukraine Refugee Crisis: Over 2 million flee to Europe
What led to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II

Refugees stand in line as they wait to be transferred to a train station after crossing the Ukrainian border into Poland on March 7.

LOUISA GOULIAMAKI/AFP via Getty Images

360°

What led to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II

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Humanitarian Relief

Needed: everything
360°

What led to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II

More than 5 million people have fled Ukraine since the war began.

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Overview

LENSES

The crisis in Ukraine is, first, a brutal war that will redefine European security alliances and perhaps redraw maps for generations. It has already changed the lives of millions of Ukrainians and ended the lives of Russian soldiers, Ukrainian soldiers and Ukrainian civilians.

Beyond the war itself, Ukraine’s trauma now includes a colossal refugee crisis as well.

The world sees a new number every day. On March 3, it passed 1 million — 1 million people who had fled Ukraine for another European country. Just three days later, the number surpassed 1.5 million. Less than two months into the war, it has passed 5 million.

Such figures are hard to comprehend. Perhaps some perspective would help.

The number of refugees from the war exceeds the populations of Alabama or South Carolina. In 2015, the year of the great migration of Syrian, Afghan and Iraqi refugees, 1.3 million people left their countries and arrived in Europe. That was the figure for the entire year. In the current conflagration, that number was eclipsed in nine days. In the first two weeks of war, an average of 5,000 people left Ukraine every hour.


Hear more from Joshua Keating and Nikhil Kumar about this story:


The exodus is notable both for its size and its speed.

“I have worked in refugee emergencies for almost 40 years,” Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, told reporters, “and rarely have I seen an exodus as rapid as this one.”

“It is an avalanche of people with cars, with pets,” Grandi told the New York Times. “It’s entire cities being emptied, and crossing the border.”

Thesis

Beyond the numbers in Ukraine’s refugee “avalanche” and the once-in-a-century flow of people in Europe, there are human stories and profound questions as to what will happen to all these people — most of whom were living comfortable lives just a few months ago.

How have they been received?

How will the host nations — and the continent writ large — handle the influx?

How are the politics of refugee policy shifting across Europe?

And — the most basic questions: Where will all these refugees go, and how will they be cared for?

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Geography Lens

Streams of people — across seven borders

It is like a wall of mothers, grandparents and children. That is how Jan Wojcik, a volunteer helping arrange transportation for refugees streaming across the Polish border near a makeshift reception center at Dorohusk, described the influx from Ukraine. “Men are mostly staying behind,” he told Grid.

“Staying behind,” because Ukraine has mandated that men between the ages of 18 and 60 remain in the country to fight or help the resistance in other ways.

“I’ve seen tens of thousands of refugees, but only a very few hundred men,” Chris Melzer, the UNHCR spokesman at the Polish-Ukrainian border, told Grid. “Vast majority, maybe 95 percent, maybe even more, are women and children.”

Poland’s border is by far the busiest destination; well over half of those who have fled Ukraine have crossed the country’s 330-mile frontier with Poland. More than 2 million refugees have arrived in Poland.

Ukraine shares borders with seven countries; apart from Poland, most of those on the run have sought shelter in Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Moldova, the only non-European Union nation on Ukraine’s western flank. On a per capita basis, Moldova — one of the poorest nations in Europe — has taken in more refugees than any other.

Warm welcomes

The crisis has prompted an unprecedented response from those border countries and from the EU more broadly. After years spent limiting migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Libya and other non-European nations, the Ukrainians are getting a warm welcome.

In Poland, the reception center at Dorohusk is one of nine that was hastily set up as Russian troops invaded Ukraine. “Everyone here wants to help,” said Wojcik, who is among thousands of Poles who have come to the border to help the new arrivals.

Hungary has also opened its borders — a sharp contrast to 2015, when it rushed to build a fence and seal its frontier with Serbia to block refugees from the Middle East. Visiting a Hungarian border village in early March, the country’s famously anti-migrant Prime Minister Viktor Orban said his country was a “good friend of Ukraine.” “If [the Ukrainians] need any help, we are here and they can count on us,” he said.

Headed in the other direction

Some Ukrainians in the eastern part of their country have taken a very different route — geographically and politically: They have crossed into Russia. Pro-Russian separatists had already started evacuating locals to Russia in the days before the invasion, supporting a central tenet in the Kremlin’s propaganda campaign: Those leaving, Russian state media said, were fleeing Ukrainian aggression and violence. More than 5000,000 have streamed into Russia since the invasion, the U.N. says.

That may stand to reason, given that fighting in the east has been particularly fierce and the country’s western and southern borders lie hundreds of miles away; long travel within Ukraine grows more dangerous by the day. Many people in the hardest-hit regions of eastern Ukraine have been massing in Dnipro, a city of about 1 million on the Dnieper River that has thus far escaped the worst of the fighting. In early March, thousands of people were reported to be queuing up at the main train station.

But for many in Dnipro, their destination of choice was the more difficult one in terms of safety and geography. They were willing to risk the long trek west, across the battle zone, to get as far from Russia as possible.

“It could be Lviv [near the Polish border], it could be Uzhhorod on the Slovakian border,” one local volunteer at the Dnipro station told the Agence France-Presse news agency. “We only know that they will go west.”

There has also been a trickle of refugees crossing to the north, into Belarus, Russia’s ally and thus Ukraine’s enemy in the war. Russian troops used Belarus as a staging ground for the invasion; not surprisingly, only a few hundred Ukrainians have crossed that border. Perhaps the surprise is that any would elect that option.

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Policy Lens

From “Fortress Europe” to open door

Nearly as stunning as the speed of the exodus is the speed at which governments have altered policies in response to the crisis.

“In terms of the direction of refugee protection and response, I’m encouraged, I’m hopeful, and I’m optimistic, even understanding that this is a huge movement of people,” Eric Schwartz, president of Refugees International, told Grid from Poland, where he has been monitoring the humanitarian response.

Most significant, on March 3, a meeting of EU ministers unanimously agreed to activate a policy known as the Temporary Protection Directive, which gives Ukrainians fleeing the conflict the right to a residence permit in any EU country they choose for one year (it can be extended for up to three years). That permit provides access to EU employment, education, healthcare and social welfare programs. Beyond those benefits, what’s unusual about the program is that it allows new arrivals to choose the country where they will live and doesn’t require them to apply for official refugee status.

This has advantages for asylum-seekers — obtaining refugee status is an often cumbersome and difficult process that requires them to prove they were personally persecuted — but Stephanie Schwartz, a professor of international relations at the University of Southern California who studies refugee issues, told Grid that it gives governments flexibility as well.

“What this does is it allows the EU countries to remain in line with their international legal obligations of not sending people home,” she said, “but without granting them the type of status that may lead to permanent residency in the future.” The implicit hope behind the policy is that this mass displacement will be temporary.

Afghans and Syrians, no; Ukrainians, yes

The EU’s Temporary Protection Directive was created in 2001, in response to the 1990s Balkan wars and mass migration from the former Yugoslavia. But past divisions among European nations meant that it was never used — despite successive waves of asylum-seekers attempting to reach the continent. In the wake of the 2015 migrant crisis, when some 1.3 million people arrived in Europe, driven by the war in Syria as well as poverty and instability in other parts of the Middle East and Africa, the EU acquired a reputation as “Fortress Europe” for policies designed to block or dissuade refugees from entering the continent. These included a landmark deal with Turkey in 2016 to keep Syrian refugees in that country, rather than opening the door for migration to the EU nations. Turkey received billions of dollars of aid in return.

The emphasis — until now — was to keep refugees out.

A Guardian investigation last year found that refugee pushback policies executed with the help of non-EU states — Libya in particular — may have been responsible for at least 2,000 deaths during the pandemic. As recently as last summer, French President Emmanuel Macron was calling on Europe to “protect ourselves against major irregular migratory flows” in the wake of the fall of Kabul, prompting accusations of heartlessness.

The fast and nearly unanimous response also stands in stark contrast to recent divisions and lack of solidarity within Europe over refugee resettlement. Notably, the two countries that refused to accept any refugees under a controversial quota system adopted in 2016 — Poland and Hungary — are on the front lines of the new refugee crisis.

Coming to the U.S.?

For now, the mass Ukrainian migration is a mostly European phenomenon, and anecdotally at least, many Ukrainian refugees appear interested in staying close to their old homes. Beyond the tug of their homes, most of those women and children have also left brothers and fathers behind.

Ultimately, though, the U.S. may see arrivals as well. The U.S. has a sizable Ukrainian population, and one week into the war, the Biden administration agreed to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Ukrainians already in the U.S., meaning they can live and work there without fear of deportation, even without citizenship or permanent residency. Unlike the European protections, which will continue to apply to Ukrainians fleeing the conflict, the American TPS status currently applies only to Ukrainians who resided in the U.S. before March 1. About 30,000 people could benefit.

As a next step, Refugees International’s Schwartz said “the president should consider making an emergency authorization that will promote the resettlement of at least 100,000 or more Ukrainian refugees over the next couple of years. I think that would be a very important signal of U.S. support for the humanitarian effort.”

Crisis within a crisis

It’s worth keeping in mind that the war in Ukraine has created an unprecedented regional refugee crisis within an unprecedented global refugee crisis. According to the United Nations, there are more than 26 million refugees in the world today, the highest number ever recorded at one time. The majority are from Syria, Venezuela, Afghanistan, South Sudan and Myanmar. The double standards in the fast and generous response to Ukraine are obvious, but another way to look at it is as a demonstration of how the system is meant to work.

If there is one silver lining, the UNHCR’s Grandi said, “it’s that Europe now has understood that anybody can become a refugee. Anybody can become a country being hit by a wave of refugees.”

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Race Lens

“For Ukrainians only”

  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

On Feb. 25, the second day of the Russian invasion, 25-year-old Alexander Somto Orah packed his belongings and joined the exodus from the capital. He had come to Ukraine from Anambra, Nigeria, in March 2021 to study management at Kyiv State University. Now he was headed west, for the border with Poland. Tens of thousands of people were beginning the same journey.

“I left as everyone was leaving,” he told Grid.

Orah’s trek began on foot. He met other African nationals, and together they gathered at the Vokzalna metro station that Friday. After a long night waiting in the cold, they boarded a train to Poland.

He and two other Africans were soon chased off the train by Ukrainian police, Orah told Grid: “They said the train going to Poland was for Ukrainians only.”

In the days following Russia’s invasion, tweets, videos and other accounts have surfaced from African and Asian nationals who said they had been blocked from trains leaving Ukraine. Others said they encountered discrimination when they reached the frontiers of other countries. Orah walked and hitchhiked for two days before he reached the Polish border. When he and his fellow travelers got there, Ukrainian border guards stopped them and at one point threatened to shoot.

“We are students!” some pleaded, arms held upright in the air.

Orah posted an account of the incident on Twitter. “Watch,” he wrote, “how they are threatening to shoot us!”

Claims of discrimination against foreign nationals have been made at multiple departure points and along the borders of different countries. It is difficult to determine the number of incidents, but Grid reviewed several accounts and found they took two forms: officials at train stations and border crossings saying that Ukrainian nationals — women and children in particular — had to be prioritized, and instances when non-Ukrainians were given no explanations and told flatly, “No room on the train for you,” or no permission to cross. The latter stories appear to have been fewer in number, but in some cases — like Orah’s — there have been allegations of threats and beatings.

Some students said they were admitted onto trains after pleading with officials. Others were ordered off buses to make space for Ukrainian citizens and left stranded. Some students made it out of Ukraine only to be refused space in Polish hotels because they lacked Ukrainian documents.

Studying in Ukraine

Many of the foreign nationals who said they experienced racism are students: For years, Ukraine has hosted African and South Asian youth at the country’s universities. When the war began, there were roughly 16,000 students from Africa and over 20,000 Indian students living in the country.

“India has a capacity problem when it comes to higher education,” Shailja Sharma, professor of international studies at DePaul University, told Grid. “There’s not enough medical and engineering schools for children who want to study those subjects, so students go wherever they can be admitted.”

The same is true of several other countries who have sent young people to study in Ukraine.

A global response

On March 1, the UNHCR’s Grandi acknowledged that foreign nationals were experiencing “different treatment” at the border. “There should be absolutely no discrimination between Ukrainians and non-Ukrainians, Europeans and non-Europeans,” he said at a press conference. “Everyone is fleeing from the same risks.”

The African Union voiced concern, and President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria tweeted a statement in support of the students. “All who flee a conflict situation have the same right to safe passage under U.N. Conventions, and the colour of their passport or their skin should make no difference,” he said.

For their part, Ukrainian officials promised to resolve the issue, while blaming Russia for creating the nightmarish conditions that led to the crisis. Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said that Africans, Asians and other students trying to leave must have “equal opportunities.” The ministry has set up an emergency hotline for any complaints. “We are working intensively to ensure their safety and speed up their passage,” Kuleba said. “Russia must stop its aggression which affects us all.”

Polish officials insisted that all refugees were welcome. “Poland provides shelter to everybody who is fleeing Russian aggression against Ukraine,” the office of the prime minister posted on Twitter, “regardless of their nationality and ethnicity.” Poland has also offered Asian and African students arriving from Ukraine the chance to continue their studies at Polish universities.

If those comments and pledges helped calm the situation, remarks made by Prime Minister Kiril Petkov of Bulgaria did not.

Trying to explain why Europeans were more welcoming to Ukrainians than they had been in recent years to Syrians, Afghans and other refugees, Petkov said, “These people are Europeans … these people are intelligent, they are educated people. This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people with unclear pasts, who could have even been terrorists.”

The policy changes

Some scholars of refugee policy say racism among Ukrainian officials may be a local manifestation of the double standard inherent in European refugee policy. In other words, a guard or police officer at the Kyiv train station may act in ways that mirror the broader policies.

“What the political will we’re seeing now is revealing is the inherent racism of other refugee policies,” Schwartz, the USC professor, told Grid.

Others say that discrimination against people of color predates the policies, and still others said they understood why Ukrainian nationals might receive priority in the current circumstance.

Dennis Nana Appiah Nkansah, a Ghanaian medical student, said he saw discrimination at the crossing from Ukraine to the Romanian town of Siret — Ukrainians were ushered through, while thousands of Zambians, Namibians, Moroccans, Indians and Pakistanis were forced to wait far longer. “It’s not fair,” he told the New York Times, but “we understood that they have to see to their people first.”

Alexander Orah has made it to a hotel in Warsaw, where he said he’s recovering physically and emotionally from the ordeal. In the end, he said, the experience hasn’t completely soured him on Ukraine.

“We experienced racism from law enforcement officers but got kindness from average Ukrainians on my way to the border,” he explained. “So, I will still return if the war gets over fast.”

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Humanitarian Relief Lens

Needed: everything

Whatever the nature of the initial welcome, the challenge in terms of humanitarian need is already profound. And that challenge will grow quickly and exponentially. Estimates vary, but current numbers of refugees are expected to double or triple within a month, unless the war comes to a sudden end.

Nowhere is the pressure greater than in Poland. Already, refugees and volunteers along the Polish-Ukrainian frontier told Grid that people are having to wait for days to get through checkpoints. And increasingly, as the situation inside Ukraine worsens, these people are arriving at the border with less food and water, and in poorer health.

Wojcik, the volunteer helping refugees arriving in Dorohusk, said the first order of business is to try to match new arrivals with a home or other means of shelter and move them from the crowded border areas. “We are helping make transport arrangements,” he said. “People are also giving food and toys for children.”

A roof over their heads

In all the front-line countries, the critical challenge will involve housing.

“A few days ago, I would have answered that we need things to deal with the cold — sleeping bags, blankets, jackets and things like that,” said the UNHCR’s Melzer. “But there have been many, many donations. From people here in Poland, ordinary Poles who are buying sleeping bags and donating them. From around Europe. And even beyond Europe. You can see boxes [of donations] with German, Italian and Spanish imprints on them. So right now, the main need is accommodation. Many people here from Ukraine have relatives in Poland, and they can go there. But the question is, for how long, and then, what about those who don’t have relatives? So, a roof and shelter is probably the most pressing need right now in this situation here.”

The view from the other frontiers is similar.

“Accommodation and housing will be the biggest problem going forward,” Zoran Stevanovic, a UNHCR spokesperson along Hungary’s border with Ukraine, told Grid. “The food, health, transportation, legal help — all could be provided. But if the numbers, which we expect to be maybe 4 million, are going to be true, the accommodation is really going to be an issue.”

In the immediate term, Polish authorities are moving to seize Russian-owned property — a creative measure that will both punish Moscow and help the refugee population. Thousands of other apartments and homes have already been volunteered or secured by local officials in cities and towns around the country. In the Netherlands, local authorities have been directed to identify thousands of places for refugees to live over the coming weeks; officials in Germany have set up special teams to coordinate accommodation for arrivals.

Across the EU, local communities and companies are also rallying to help. In Germany — which along with Sweden took in the lion’s share of Syrian refugees arriving in Europe in 2015 and 2016 — close to 100,000 people have already signed up to act as hosts on an online platform organizing private accommodation for Ukrainians. Airbnb has pledged to find housing as many as 100,000 people.

Global appeal

The U.N. has already appealed for roughly $550 million to help with the refugee influx. The U.N.’s refugee agency has rented a new warehouse in Rzeszow, the largest city in southeastern Poland, to move in supplies. Beyond housing, the needs in Poland and beyond are urgent and broad — medical supplies, food and water in particular.

The EU has also extended support to Moldova — which is outside the union. Moldova is one of the smallest (population of just 2.6 million) and poorest countries on the continent — but its proximity to Ukraine has made it a center of the refugee crisis. The first week of March saw the arrival of the first batch of U.N. relief to the country, including thousands of thermal blankets. Shipments over the coming weeks will bring additional supplies — sleeping bags, solar lamps and hygiene kits for babies.

Visiting the country on March 6, Secretary of State Antony Blinken promised U.S. assistance. The Biden administration has formally asked Congress for more than $4 billion to help with the humanitarian crisis, including support for both Ukrainian civilians and refugees. Those resources, Blinken said, will be brought “to bear to help alleviate some of the burden that Moldova and other countries are carrying.”

Thinking of home

Like people everywhere who are forced to leave their homes, what many who are crossing these borders want most is to go back — to their country, to their lives. “We are all preparing for whatever is needed, for however long it is needed,” Stevanovic told Grid. “However, in my personal interactions with people crossing the border from Ukraine, almost all of them are saying the same thing: ‘When will the war stop, and when can we go back to our homes?’”

In the end, the crisis is about so much more than those staggering numbers. It is about the millions of people whose lives have been transformed overnight in the most tragic of ways. Entire futures — vibrant landscapes of hopes and dreams — reduced to dust in the blink of an eye. Or to be more precise, in the dropping of a Russian bomb.

For some, the experience has been doubly traumatic — a second crushing, life-altering turn of events in the span of just six months.

“Everything feels surreal,” Masouma Tajik, a 23-year-old Afghan refugee who until February was living in Kyiv, told Grid.

Last August, Tajik left her native land — Afghanistan — after the U.S. military left and the Taliban seized power.

Tajik had attended university in Kabul and begun a career as a data analyst for a technology company. With the return of the Taliban, she said she had no choice but to flee as her world — a world in which growing ranks of Afghan women went to school and built careers — was upended overnight. “The country where I grew up doesn’t exit anymore,” she said.

Unable to secure passage to the U.S., she ended up in Ukraine; friends who were being evacuated to the country by their employer were able to bring her along. Soon after she arrived, she won a graduate scholarship to Rutgers University. When Russia invaded, Tajik was waiting for her student visa to the United States.

“Twice in six months, I had to leave everything behind and run for my life,” she told Grid.

Tajik had started moving before the Russian invasion. Even as experts debated whether Putin would attack, she left the Ukrainian capital on Feb. 22 — the day before her birthday and 48 hours before the assault began. “I didn’t want to wait until the Russians enter,” she said, remembering what she had seen just months before in Kabul. “I didn’t want to make the same mistake.”

Tajik headed for Lviv, in western Ukraine. She spent several days waiting to cross the Polish border. Now she is in Warsaw, living with a friend and trying to work out how to reapply for her American visa.

“In Kyiv, my apartment was next to a military post,” she told Grid. “I was told a few days ago that it was bombed.”

This story originally ran on March 7. It has since been updated.

  • Tom Nagorski
    Tom Nagorski

    Global Editor

    Tom Nagorski is the global editor at Grid, where he oversees our coverage of global security, U.S.-China relations, migration trends, global economics and U.S. foreign policy.

  • Nikhil Kumar
    Nikhil Kumar

    Deputy Global Editor

    Nikhil Kumar is the deputy global editor at Grid, reporting on global affairs.

  • Kaila Philo
    Kaila Philo

    Government and Political Institutions Reporter

    Kaila Philo is a reporter at Grid where she focuses on the U.S. government and political institutions.

  • Joshua Keating
    Joshua Keating

    Global Security Reporter

    Joshua Keating is a global security reporter for Grid focused on conflict, diplomacy and foreign policy.

Contributors

What led to Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II