It is almost a month since Russia invaded Ukraine, shattering the peace in towns and cities across the country with missile attacks and bombing raids that have forced millions to flee for their lives. Most, unsurprisingly, have ended up going west, away from Russia — to border points in Poland, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia and Moldova. Their numbers have risen at an astonishing rate; a few hundred thousand in the first days of the war, the total is now approaching 4 million. They have left at the rate of roughly 1 million people per week. Four million refugees was the estimate the U.N. had given for the middle of this year.
Now, for the first time since the war began, the pace of the exodus appears to be slowing, according to Chris Melzer, a senior spokesperson for the UNHCR, the U.N.’s refugee agency. Speaking to Grid from Germany, where he returned recently after a 16-day stint at the Ukrainian-Polish border, Melzer said most of the refugees want to stay close to their country, instead of venturing farther west. The vast majority of the refugees are women and children. Their hope, even as the war rages, is to reunite as soon as possible with their husbands, fathers and brothers, most of whom have stayed behind to resist the invasion.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Grid: The last time we spoke, soon after the Russian invasion, the total number of Ukrainians forced to flee their country was a little above 1 million, most of them going west. The U.N. was anticipating over 4 million by the middle of the year. But the numbers have already climbed to almost 3.5 million people. Given the pace, what are you anticipating now? How many more millions by the middle of the year?
Chris Melzer: The most recent number, [Monday] morning, is 3.49 million, and we had a projection of 1 to 4 million, so we’re close to this, and it is very likely that we will reach the 4 million — but maybe not so likely that we will exceed it by far. The reason is that the numbers are going down. For example, yesterday, there were around 40,000 people who came to Poland; two weeks ago, there were 140,000 people a day. So the figures are going down. It is still a lot of people, and the way the situation is, it could change tomorrow. If the war intensifies, the figures could go up again. But right now, the numbers are lower.
The overall number of displaced people is of course higher. It is now around 10 million, because there are about 6 million internally displaced Ukrainians who are refugees within their own country, people who have had to flee their homes because of the fighting.
G: What is the reason for the decline in the number of people fleeing across the border?
CM: The people who wanted to escape have mostly fled or are doing so right now. That has reduced the pressure at the borders. In such emergencies, you must remember, it is not the case that everyone flees. There are many people who have decided to stay — because, for example, they have decided to fight or because they have decided to wait for now. But again, if the war intensifies, many more people will change their minds. That’s why it is still very hard to predict refugee movements. There are so many variables.
G: And internally, do you have any sense of where people are fleeing to — presumably still from east to west?
CM: Yes, mostly. And we had already been seeing this. Over the last eight years, we already had 860,000 internally displaced people in Ukraine. These were mostly people along this contact line between Donetsk and Luhansk, in the east, and other parts of Ukraine. Now, yes, we are also seeing most of the people going from the east to the west, and also from the big cities to the rural areas.
G: What have the fast-spiraling numbers meant in terms of pressures on resources — on food, other essential things for refugees and especially shelter?
CM: This is a very big challenge. Right now, the solidarity [across Europe] is working. Many refugees have found accommodation thanks to governments — in Poland, Romania, other border countries, and also in countries like Germany, for example. Many people have also found private housing. We are actually also hosting a family in my apartment in Berlin, by the way. And all this works, and is working. But the challenging part is the time. If this situation goes on for months, and unfortunately this is possible, then this will be of course a challenge for many people, and this is also one of our main concerns.
G: Where are most of the recently arrived refugees going — are they staying in the border countries or moving to elsewhere across Europe?
CM: It is still a minority that is moving elsewhere. Before the war started, we had estimated the figure of around 70-30 — 70 percent would stay in border countries like Poland, and 30 percent would move on to other countries.
But my very personal sense — and this is me, not UNHCR, since I’ve talked to so many people coming in — when I’ve asked them about where they were planning to go and whether they had relatives or friends outside Ukraine, I would say maybe 10 or 20 percent said they wanted to move on, whether to Denmark or Germany or France or wherever. Definitely not more than 20 percent. And every time, they would have a clear reason. They would say, “I have a sister in Barcelona” or aunt in Hamburg or something like that. I can’t remember a single case where someone said, “I want to go to Germany,” say, “because it is better there.”
Many said they had relatives in Poland. The majority said that they want to stay not only in Poland, actually, but in east Poland, because they hoped to go back home as soon as possible.
G: So what is your main worry now, as the conflict persists, and the number of refugees adds up, even if for now the rate of those coming across the border has declined slightly?
CM: The main concern is that the situation deteriorates. That the war doesn’t just continue, but even intensifies. And even if it doesn’t intensify, if the conflict continues, over possibly months, this is a very big challenge. It is a challenge for the host countries, but first and foremost for the refugees themselves. These people have suffered so much in the last three and a half weeks. This situation needs to end as soon as possible.