EU readies for refugees as UN warns war may displace seven million

Poland and Hungary open their borders to receive families fleeing invasion

Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled over the borders of Ukraine as the invading Russian army meets resistance in its cities, with the United Nations warning that as many as four million people could leave the country to seek safety.

Lines stretched for kilometres at the borders of Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Romania and Slovakia as crowds of largely women, children and older people fled with what belongings they could manage.

Men aged 18-60 were prohibited from leaving by the Ukrainian government amid a general mobilisation of all forces available to defend the country, with Ukrainian citizens based abroad returning to the country to join the fight.

As of Sunday 368,000 people had fled Ukraine, according to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR. The agency said 45,200 people had arrived in Poland in just 15 hours.

Hungary and Poland opened their doors and declared they would welcome all Ukrainian refugees, reversing years of hostility to migrants to come to the aid of their neighbouring state. "We're letting everyone in," said Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban.

The European Union pledged to ramp up humanitarian aid and offered support to the countries closest to the conflict.

Protection directive

“We are witnessing what could become the largest military crisis on our European continent in many, many years,” warned the EU’s crisis management commissioner Janez Lenarcic.

“It’s day four of the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine, and in this totally unjustified military aggression, like in every war, it is usually the civilians who pay the highest price,” he said.

The United Nations has estimated that the war could affect 18 million people, displacing some seven million within the country, while causing four million to flee abroad.

The EU is considering triggering the Temporary Protection Directive, a measure that has never been used before, and was introduced in 2001 in the wake of the Yugoslav wars. It would allow Ukrainians to be granted immediate residence permits for one to three years and to access supports, with member states working together to house people across the EU.

Visa requirements

Ireland has waived visa requirements and is providing support to reunite family members. Arriving in Brussels at a meeting to discuss the issue, Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that some Ukrainians had claimed asylum in Ireland in recent days but indicated many more could come.

“There are anywhere between 2,500-5,000 Ukrainian citizens in Ireland, some of them have Irish citizenship already. So even if you take into account their family members and friends coming to join them, you know that number could could be any kind of a number,” she said.

“We’ve made it very clear, anybody who is a Ukrainian citizen who wishes to come to Ireland, whether that’s seeking international protection or to join family members, they’re welcome to do so and we will of course, provide support, provide accommodation, provide whatever is necessary to keep them safe.”

The crisis has also affected thousands of non-Ukrainians who were in the country for work or study, with many medical students from India and African countries finding themselves trapped.

"There are third country nationals that have been staying as students for example in Ukraine," the EU's home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told journalists. "If they come to the European Union, we stand ready to help them get back to their country of origin."

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O'Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

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