With more than 11 million people internally displaced or fleeing Ukraine concerns grow over vulnerable groups including disabled people, third country nationals, detained migrants and women and children at risk of trafficking and sexual abuse. Poland has seen more than 2,5 million arrivals of Ukrainian refugees and civil society and private citizens are struggling to keep up as abuse continues at the border with Belarus.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) more than 4,3 million people have fled Ukraine and figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reveal that 7,1 million are internally displaced. The unprecedented displacement crisis and deteriorating humanitarian situation in Ukraine leaves vulnerable groups particularly exposed. The situation is dire for an estimated 2.7 million Ukrainians with disabilities. “The bombs and bullets, the chaos and carnage, are hard enough to bear for any human being. But imagine if the basements offering safety from lethal shells are only accessible by stairs, the lifts stop working in power cuts and the only transport out of town is inaccessible for wheelchair users”, wrote columnist and former foreign correspondent, Ian Birrell on 3 April.

As of 3 April nearly 205,500 non-Ukrainians living, studying or working in the country had fled but many, particularly those African descent, are reportedly facing severe obstacles along the way. Further, non-Ukrainians fleeing, face differential and worse reception conditions in the EU compared to Ukrainian nationals. As earlier reported by Transnational Institute (TNI): “Ukraine has been one of the key target countries for the EU’s efforts to externalise the detention of migrants, where tens of millions of euros of European money has funded border security measures and the construction of detention centres” and according to Human Rights Watch (HRW): “Scores of migrants who had been arbitrarily detained in Ukraine remain locked up there and are at heightened risk amid the hostilities, including military activity in the vicinity”. “It is extremely concerning that migrants and refugees are still locked up in detention centres in war zones, with the risk of being attacked without any possibility to flee,” said MEP Tineke Strik from the Green group. Aid organisations have warned of the heightened risk of human trafficking and sexual abuse of women and children fleeing Ukraine. Secretary-general of the International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), Jagan Chapagain, stated: “In the past, people were moving as a group or on a bus, the chances of getting misled is less if you’re in a group. But now people are moving individually, on foot, that’s where abuse can happen”. Commenting on reported abuse, adviser on anti-trafficking, Tatiana Kotlyarenko stated: “The way I see it, this is a war on women and children,” adding: “and we may be sending them from one hell to another”.

On 4 April the Council of the EU allocated 17 billion Euro in funding to help Ukrainian refugees. The Council “adopted legislative amendments making it possible for member states to redirect resources from cohesion policy funds and the Fund for European Aid for the Most Deprived (FEAD) to assist the refugees escaping the Russian military aggression against Ukraine”. Since the Commission invoked the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) on 3 March 2022, ECRE has tracked developments on the implementation across European countries. While, the tendency has generally been welcoming of Ukrainian refugees the situation remains dire in border states taking the bulk of arrivals and particularly in Poland rights abuse continues for other people on the move.

Poland has received more than 2,5 million Ukrainian refugees since the Russian invasion began on 24 February. Authorities have been criticised for leaving the main responsibility for their reception to private citizens and civil society. According to Kamil Prusinowski a volunteer at the Ukrainian border, supplies, funding and energy are all running low. “We are just bleeding out,” he said, continuing: “We just require the proper institutional help to support all of these people”. Of the more than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees in the capital of Warsaw, only about 10,000 are staying in the temporary housing the city has set up with most in private accommodation. With more than 150,000 displaced Ukrainians, Poland’s second-largest city Krakow has increased its population by 20% in just a few weeks. “We’ve found a place for the first wave of refugees,” said the city’s Mayor, Jacek Majchrowski, adding: “but we don’t really know what’s going to happen next”. Meanwhile, other groups of displaced and volunteers are facing a much harsher approach by Polish authorities. HRW stated on 1 April: “At the Polish-Belarusian border, Polish police treat volunteers as criminals for providing aid to people trying to leave Belarus. Many of these people are now stranded in a forest on the Polish-Belarus border, their only lifeline being the volunteers who are risking imprisonment to help them”. On the same day, Grupa Granica reported that: “small children, people in need of medical care, have been wandering literally a few meters from the border with Poland for almost a week”. According to The National: “About 2,000 people, largely from the Middle East, are caught in a migration trap, either hidden in a wooded area between Belarus and Poland or held in Polish refugee detention centres after their attempts to seek asylum were met with a hostile push-back policy”. Commenting on the first such ruling in Poland ECRE member, Association for Legal Intervention stated on 31 March: “The District Court in Bielsk Podlaski, VII Local Criminal Division in Hajnówka, by decision of March 28, 2022, file reference VII Kp 203/21, found the arrest of three men from Afghanistan who crossed the Polish-Belarusian border illegal, unjustified and incorrect”.

In Hungary far-right prime minister, Viktor Orban recently celebrated his landslide election victory with critique of Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. While according to UNHCR figures Hungary had seen a little more than 400,000 arrivals as of 6 April the government claimed 540,000 arrivals by 31 March, leading ECRE member the Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) to accuse authorities of inflating numbers to ensure EU funding. On 5 April the European Commission announced the launching of proceedings to suspend support payments to Hungary over the country breaching of EUs rule-of-law standards. For years the Orban regime has initiated a crack-down on NGOs supporting asylum seekers and refugees but Marton Elodi, from Migration Aid – an organisation that has been a target – sees a difference in the governments approach during the arrivals of Ukrainians: “As far as the government goes, obviously most people know the story, they have been very anti-refugee and anti-immigrant since 2015,” he said, continuing: “Now they kind of accept the help of Migration Aid and they approve that we have more experience in these kinds of situations than they have”. Moldova that has also seen more than 400,000 arrivals, 100,000 of which have found permanent refuge called for support  ahead of a donor conference in Berlin, that ensured pledges of 659 million Euro from Germany and a group of partners.

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This article appeared in the ECRE Weekly Bulletin. You can subscribe to the Weekly Bulletin here.