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Ukrainians flee to European countries, including some who previously turned refugees back

“We have to do it,” she said. “Ukrainians are fighting for us and they are fighting for European human values.”

Nearly 150,000 Ukrainians fled to European neighbours, mainly Poland, Hungary, Moldova, Slovakia and Romania, since Russia invaded Ukraine on Thursday, the UN refugee agency said on Saturday.

Thousands others are still trying to cross congested borders, waiting in the cold for hours in cars or on foot with just the bare minimum of personal belongings.

What could become the biggest humanitarian crisis in Europe since 2015 – when more than a million refugees, mainly from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, arrived and sparked a continent-wide crisis – is rolls out quickly.

So far, European leaders and communities say they are ready to welcome Ukrainian refugees — including countries like Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, which have previously hardened their borders in the face of other waves of refugees.

In many cases, volunteers with locally funded food, clothing and warm rooms await those who arrive. “I see there’s a huge response from ordinary citizens,” Lempart said. “We have calls [for donations] from all over Europe and the world.

Meanwhile, The situation continues to worsen: the United Nations warned on Friday that up to 5 million of the 44 million Ukrainians could become refugees if Russia’s attacks on Ukraine continue. Mainly women, children and elderly people are fleeing – with men aged 18 to 60 barred from leaving Ukraine after President Volodymyr Zelensky called on Ukrainians to take up arms and defend the country.

Poland, which has seen the largest influx, has pledged to set up reception centers along its 300-mile border to offer food, medical care and other resources. This month, thousands of troops from the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division deployed there to help with preparations.

“We will do everything to provide safe shelter in Poland to everyone who needs it,” Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kaminski said on Thursday.

Poland is already home to around 2 million Ukrainians, many of whom fled after Russia took control of Crimea in 2014 and the start of the eight-year war in eastern Ukraine. The United Nations has estimated that between 1 and 3 million additional Ukrainians could join them.

Other neighbours, such as Hungary and Slovakia, are sending troops to their borders to help welcome refugees. In Romania, volunteers are also lining up to offer free food and accommodation. Ukrainians do not need a visa to enter these countries, as they can stay anywhere in the European Union Schengen area for up to 90 days without a visa. (This agreement is expected to change at the end of 2022).

Ireland, which is not part of the Schengen area, said on Thursday it would waive visa requirements for Ukrainians. Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford said his “sanctuary nation” was ready to welcome Ukrainians.

Other governments, including Britain’s, have pledged to help Ukraine but have not relaxed or clarified their immigration policies.

Ukraine is not a member of the European Union, the main alliance of European countries that Russian President Vladimir Putin considers an existential threat.

But Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, told Euronews on Wednesday that the EU was “pretty well prepared” to absorb Ukrainian refugees out of “unity” and “solidarity”.

“We are looking at support from the European Asylum Agency in processing asylum applications, support from Frontex in registration and border management, as well as support from Europol,” he said. she stated.

The Ukrainian crisis has prompted some countries to reform their policies. While Austria did not accept Ukrainian refugees during the Crimean crisis in 2014, Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer said on Thursday he would welcome them at that time as part of Europe – the very idea that Putin rejects.

“We are a European family and families support each other,” he said.

Slovak officials said on Saturday the country would pay monthly stipends to Slovaks who support and house displaced Ukrainians. In 2015, however, the country said it would not accept refugees unless they were Christians.

But these kinds of disparities have frustrated refugee advocates, who have long criticized European leaders for pledging to support refugees while failing to fund programs and maintaining often harsh and unwelcoming restrictions.

In recent years, European countries have tried to stop, sometimes violently, the flow of non white and non christian migrants and asylum seekers fleeing other conflicts and wars in the Middle East, Afghanistan and Africa.

In November, Poland forcibly refused entry to asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa who found themselves caught in a geopolitical standoff between Russia and Europe as they attempted to enter from neighboring Belarus.

In 2015, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built a fence to cut off one of the migrant routes. More recently, he supported a law criminalizing helping immigrants who entered Hungary illegally to seek asylum.

The backlash from the influx of refugees in 2015 and 2016 emboldened the far right in some European countries and led to a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment and policies.