Russia’s annexation of Crimea and continued fighting in eastern Ukraine has sent growing numbers of people fleeing areas hit by the conflict. But the exact number of refugees remains unclear.
Jewhenia Kalashnik can’t hold back her tears. “There was shooting on all sides, ever closer to our home,” the 26-year-old from the eastern Ukrainian city of Slovyansk remembers. Since April, the Ukrainian army has been battling pro-Russian separatists there. “It’s impossible to describe just how scary it was,” Jewhenia says. Until the end of May, Jewhenia and her husband together with their children, aged four and six, hid in the cellar each night. Finally, they couldn’t take it any longer. They took a bus and left their home.
Today, the family lives in the village of Buhajivka, around 60 kilometers north of Slovyansk. They fled there together with a family they knew. The four adults and four children first moved into a small house where a relative, an older woman, lived. The men then found work as drivers with an agricultural company. The community provided the two families with an empty house and helped them make it livable. “I was surprised because I have never experienced such helpful people,” Jewhenia says.
Number of refugees unclear
Like the Kalashnik family, many Ukrainians have left their homes since March this year. Though there are no exact figures, Russia claims that tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been displaced and that the country is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe.
“More than 5,000 Ukrainians have applied for refugee status this year,” Konstantin Romodanovsky, head of Russia's Federal Migration Service, FMS, said in an interview on Wednesday 811.06.2014) with daily “Rossiyskaya Gazeta” which is published by the government. In May, the FMS estimated the total number of Ukrainian refugees amounted to more than 140,000. Most of them fled to Russian border regions, FMS said.
“It’s difficult to know the exact number,” Vladimir Sharichin from the Moscow Institute for GUS Studies told DW. “The problem is that there are no visa requirements between Russia and Ukraine,” he added. “Many don’t register themselves as refugees in Russia,” he said, adding that most just want to return home as soon as possible.
The Ukrainian authorities, however, consider those figures by their Russian counterparts to be hugely exaggerated. Most refugees from the eastern regions of Ukraine prefer to stay in their own country and live with relatives, Kyiv has said.
The United Nations also named a much lower figure at the end of May. The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Geneva said a little over 10,000 Ukrainians had been displaced by the fighting.
In March, the first refugees within Ukraine were Crimean. After Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, many experienced hostility from ethnic Russians because of their pro-Ukrainian stance. According to Ukrainian media, thousands moved to the neighboring southern areas of Ukraine, to the capital Kyiv as well as to the western Ukrainian town of Lviv. A majority of the 300,000 Crimeans however don’t want to leave their homeland.
Most of the refugees in Ukraine today are people from the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk where pro-Russian separatists have declared “people’s republics.” Heavy fighting still continues in the area. The number of victims, including children, is on the rise. That prompted newly elected Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to order the creation of a humanitarian corridor for civilians in the warring region.
But Ukraine still hasn’t set up any camps for refugees. But on social networks such as Facebook, groups of volunteers are already pitching in with accommodation, transport and money.
But, it’s not enough, Kyiv activist Olexander Klyashtornyi told DW. “We just don’t have the capacity to cope with this flood of people,” he said, adding that the government in Kyiv had to step up and help the refugees.
Ukrainian refugees in Poland
The wave of refugees is now spilling over into the European Union. Since the beginning of the year, Poland has registered around 600 refugees from Ukraine. This week, authorities in Warsaw said there’s been a dramatic spike in refugees in recent weeks.
Germany has hardly received any refugees from Ukraine. But that could change. Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere said in May that he couldn’t rule out a rise in numbers.