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Refugees fleeing Ukraine at a crossroads

Grzegorz Szymanowski Korczowa, Poland
March 3, 2022

Tens of thousands of refugees have crossed the border into Poland. At a reception center in Korczowa, Ukrainians — along with students and migrant workers from Asia — are trying to figure out their next steps.

Women and children arrive with suitcases and speak with volunteers, next to a bus
Many refugees from Ukraine have arrived in Korczowa by busImage: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

"Look, mom! There's something flying in the sky," 6-year-old Sofia exclaimed when she saw her first missile. It was the first day of the war and Yulia Rezhova and her two daughters were already on the run. They were fleeing the village of Gorenka, north of Kyiv, and avoided the routes taken by the Russian soldiers rushing toward Ukraine's capital.

"I would stay, if not for my daughters," Rezhova told DW, recounting their escape. The 30-year-old had wanted to remain in Ukraine, like her sister and brother, trying to organize and support others. But now she is in Poland.

A pregnant woman and her two daughters standing outside, in warm coats and hats
Yulia Rezhova and her two daughters have managed to flee to PolandImage: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

Hundreds of thousands have fled Ukraine since the war began on February 24. The longer the war goes on, the larger this number will grow. The European Union expects that up to 4 million people might try to leave the country because of the Russian attack.

Most flee to Poland

More than half of the refugees, about 380,000 people, have so far fled to Poland — like Rezhova. She's waiting with her daughters in the parking lot of the refugee reception center in Korczowa, a few kilometers from the Ukrainian-Polish border.

Refugees in the Korczowa center
Korczowa hosts one of the many refugee centers in PolandImage: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

The Polish government has opened 27 such facilities. Korczowa is a junction for those arriving by bus via the nearby border crossing. When they get off, they are given food and toiletries by volunteers. From here, they attempt to journey further. In the large warehouse, about 2,000 camp beds have been set up. According to a police officer, about 700 people have been staying there overnight, but nobody knows the exact number. The refugees come and go.

Rezhova does not want to stay in the refugee facility. She is waiting for a friend to pick her and her daughters up and take them to the Czech Republic, where her husband currently works.

Ukraine: Equal rights for all refugees?

Foreign refugees in a tricky situation

The people who stay longer in the hall are mostly unsure what their next move will be. These include Raju Bhandari, a 29-year-old from Nepal who had started his engineering studies in Kyiv only two months ago. He speaks softly, with a shy smile.

He had to stay put at the border for two days, he said, because Ukrainian border guards held him back. "I always have a lot of respect for foreigners, why didn't they have any for me?" He has had no problems on the Polish side of the border, he said.

Many foreign nationals are holding out in the warehouse: Students from India, Angola, or Uzbekistan, along with migrant workers from Central Asian countries. The International Organization for Migration estimates that about 470,000 foreigners were living in Ukraine, about 75,000 are students. These people are also fleeing the country. Polish daily newspaper Dziennik Gazeta Prawna has reported that, according to Poland's border patrol, about 10% of the refugees are third-country nationals — in other words, they do not hold a passport of an EU member state.

Raju Bhandari in the refugee center
Student Raju Bhandari from Nepal is unsure how to proceedImage: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

But while many Ukrainians have contacts in Poland — even before the war about 1.5 million lived in the neighboring state — the country is an unknown for the other refugees. Bhandari, waiting on a camp bed for a money transfer from his parents in Nepal, is unsure where he should go next. "Can I study here in Poland?" he wondered. He likes how willing the Poles have been to help, but for people like him, those without a Ukrainian passport, the prospect of staying is unclear.

Waiting at the entrance to the warehouse hall are those who have a destination but are unsure how to get there. Here, the refugees are looking for volunteer drivers or buses that can take them to other cities in Poland. Volunteers, soldiers and firefighters attempt to help organize such requests. Calls of "Krakow with an overnight stay, two seats," or "Bus to Wroclaw," ring out over the loudspeakers.

Andriy Chornoguz, a 17-year-old Ukrainian, has two destinations in mind. He wants to go to Italy, where his parents live and work. But he is a minor and has no passport, so he will not be able to fly there. "My parents told me I should come to Poland, and we will see what happens from here," he said.

His journey from Kyiv with a family acquaintance took five days. "Difficult, very difficult," he said with sadness in his voice. He is waiting on a ride to Warsaw, where his uncle lives.

Andriy Chornoguz
Andriy Chornoguz is a minor and has no passport. Traveling to meet his parents in Italy may be difficultImage: Grzegorz Szymanowski/DW

Many return to their home countries

The beds deep in the corridors of the reception center are occupied by migrant workers from Central Asia. They came to Ukraine to earn money, such as Murat from Kyrgyzstan who had most recently been working as a car painter in Odesa.

"The flights for myself, my wife, and two daughters cost about €1,800 ($1,900), where should I get that money from?" He had not been paid recently. "The embassy said I had to sort out the trip on my own."

But for others, there is suddenly some hope between the rows of beds. Staff from the consulate of Uzbekistan have set up a mobile office and are booking plane tickets to the country. A small group of men stands off to the side, weighing whether they would rather stay if they are allowed to work legally.

map of where people are fleeing Ukraine to

The European Union now wants to grant Ukrainian refugees protection for up to three years, and issue them with work permits. However, when the migrant workers hear from their consulate staff that this is not an option for nationals of other countries, they decide they would rather head back home. The Polish border control has announced that it will work with foreign embassies to organize repatriation flights for third-country nationals.

Returning home, to Ukraine, is also at the front of Yulia Ryzkhowa's mind, the woman who is fleeing to the Czech Republic with her children. Although she does not know when — or if — this will be possible, she seems to have made her decision: "I absolutely want to go back, without a doubt. Because it is our country."

This article was originally written in German.

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