ON THE UKRAINIAN-MOLDOVA BORDER — The war in Ukraine has sparked the fastest mass migration to Europe in at least three decades, prompting comparisons with the Balkan wars of the 1990s and echoing the vast population displacements that have followed World War II.
At least 660,000 people, mostly women and children, fled Ukraine to neighboring countries to the west in the first five days of the Russian invasion, according to the UN refugee agency , which compiled statistics recorded by national immigration authorities. And that figure does not include those displaced inside Ukraine, or who have fled or been ordered to evacuate to Russia.
In less than a week, the flight of Ukrainians is at least 10 times higher than the week-long record of people entering Europe during the 2015 migration crisis, and almost double the number of refugees recorded by the United Nations United during the first 11 days of the Kosovo war in 1999.
The historic movement of people westward has caused queues of up to 24 hours at border checkpoints along Ukraine’s borders with Poland, Moldova, Hungary, Slovakia and Russia. Romania, and elicited a broad humanitarian response from governments and civilians. The refugees have been housed in repurposed schools as well as private apartments, makeshift camps, conference centers, upmarket wineries and even the home of a Moldovan lawmaker.
“We don’t know where we are going,” Anna Rogachova, 34, a housewife from Odessa, a city on the Black Sea, said minutes after driving through Moldova with her 8-year-old daughter on Tuesday morning. . “And we don’t know when we’ll be back.”
“Let the world know,” Ms Rogachova said, pointing to a multicolored suitcase in the back of her car. “We left everything. We put all our lives in this one bag.
Then, as the snow began to fall, she began to cry.
Some refugees believe that the war will soon end, which will allow them to return quickly. Ms. Rogachova wasn’t so sure.
If displacement drags on for years, it would present long-term challenges for Ukraine, which would face a brain drain of rare proportions, and for host countries where resources are limited and the feeling anti-immigrant is strong. But it could mean opportunities; Eastern European countries like Moldova, which have experienced depopulation for decades, could suddenly find themselves boosted by a large educated immigrant population.
Migration statistics can be inaccurate, especially at the start of a chaotic new crisis, Peter Gatrell, a European migration historian at the University of Manchester in Britain, said in a telephone interview.
But for eminent migration historians like Professor Gatrell, the scenes nevertheless already evoke the great migrations of European history, including those of the 1940s, when several million people were moved across Europe at the end of World War II.
United Nations officials have said the war could produce up to four million refugees. If the fighting drags on and Ukrainians continue to migrate at the current rate, that could be a conservative estimate, said Philipp Ther, a professor of Central European history at the University of Vienna and author of a history of refugees in Europe since 1492.
“It would be on the scale of the post-war situation,” Professor Ther said in a telephone interview.
Large numbers of civilians on the move could restrict the Ukrainian military’s ability to maneuver, just as huge refugee flows hampered armies at the end of World War II, he said.
The scale of migration this week has been such that secondary traffic jams have also occurred on subsequent crossings well beyond Ukraine’s borders, including at the Moldova-Romania border, 70 miles to the west. of Ukraine, as some Ukrainians tried to reach their friends and family based in the centre. Europe and beyond.
In some ways, the crisis was no surprise. In Moldova, the government had been planning for a sudden influx for months, Moldovan Interior Minister Ana Revenco said in a telephone interview. But the scale of the crisis was shocking: As of Monday evening, 70,000 people – more than double the government’s projections – had entered Moldova, a nation of just 2.6 million people and one of the poorest in Europe.
The streams include virtually no men between the ages of 18 and 60, who have been banned by the Kyiv government from leaving Ukraine unless they have a medical condition that would restrict their ability to fight.
“In terms of intensity,” Ms. Revenco said, “it was probably something no one was prepared for.”
Lost in the big tales were the small, sad stories of individual people. Many were in shock – not only from the war itself, but also from the suddenness with which they had been torn from normal life.
When war broke out on Thursday, Ms Rogachova had just returned from a figure skating competition in Kharkiv, where her daughter, Maria, 8, took first place.
A 17-year-old high school girl had just celebrated her birthday in Odessa.
A 34-year-old singer had just returned to Ukraine from Russia, rejecting war talk.
Tuesday morning, all three were in the Moldavian snow, not knowing when or if they would return.
The singer, Julia Kondratieva, even planned to push further west, fearing that the war would spill over into Moldova. “It’s not a good idea to stay,” she said. “Maybe there will be fighting here.”
Leaving in such a hurry, many had forgotten or abandoned their most prized possessions. Apart from clothes, food and essential documents, Ms Rogachova had only packed her daughter’s skates.
As is common in early mass migrations, the first to arrive were often those with the money and means to move quickly. At the Palanca border post in Moldova on Tuesday, cars leaving Ukraine included German-made 4x4s and sedans. At a nearby winery, most of the guests were Ukrainians, waiting to see if the war would ebb before deciding whether or not to proceed.
But there were also many without these options.
Weaving through the snowy border were mothers pushing strollers, a schoolgirl clutching her books, a woman carrying a bag of toilet paper and another carrying a small dog.
Some had decided to leave hours earlier, after an increase in air raids around previously calm Odessa.
Russo-Ukrainian war: what you need to know
Pushing her one-year-old son in a stroller, Anna Hak, 28, said she first tried to play hide and seek in the air-raid shelters. “At first we played ‘Let’s hide from the thunder!’ said Ms. Hak, a teacher. “But then you see your hands are shaking and you realize you can’t pretend anymore.”
For some foreign nationals, particularly from the developing world, fleeing Ukraine has been particularly traumatic. A group of Vietnamese workers were quickly housed in a makeshift government camp in Moldova on Tuesday. But African refugees have reported widespread discrimination that makes their departure particularly difficult; at the Polish border, a Times reporter observed that Africans were processed much more slowly than Ukrainians.
Christian, 30, a Congolese electrical engineer, who gave only his first name to avoid trouble with authorities, said he waited 20 hours to pass. After traveling by train from Odessa, he worried about what was to come. After eight years of studying and working in Ukraine, he said, he didn’t know where to go. “There is war here and there is war in the Congo.”
But at least he had documents, he said. “There are many here without papers,” he said. “What will happen to them?”
A Ukrainian woman gave birth while traveling by bus to the border, forcing her to stay in Ukraine, according to an Israeli charity, United Hatzalah, which helped her.
Another pregnant woman, Maria Voinscaia, arrived in Moldova just in time and was due to give birth by Caesarean section on Wednesday.
Did she wonder when her child might see Ukraine for the first time? “I don’t even want to think about it,” Ms Voinscaia, 31, said in a phone interview from a hospital. “Last week, I couldn’t even imagine it.”
For some, the thought of a permanent break with their homeland deepened their sense of Ukrainian identity.
The day before they left for Moldova, Ms Rogachova hunkered down with her daughter, Maria, and mother, Viktoria, all of whom are native Russian speakers.
“Never, ever forget that you are Ukrainian,” Viktoria had told Maria.
“We will speak Ukrainian at home,” Maria had promised.
But now it was unclear where the house was.
Viktoria was traveling to Chisinau, the Moldavian capital, to stay with an aunt. Mrs Rogachova and her daughter were traveling to Germany to stay with friends of friends.
And standing in the snow, Mrs. Rogachova was again in tears.
Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Medyka, Poland, and Irina Perciun from Palanca, Moldova.