With more than 5,7 million refugees and 7,7 million internally displaced (IDPs) concerns are growing over vulnerable groups in displacement inside and outside Ukraine. The situation in border states is increasingly dire with volunteers and capacity drying up in Poland, people unable to obtain temporary protection in Hungary and Moldova under severe pressure.

According to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) 5,7 million people have fled Ukraine and figures from the International Organization for Migration (IOM) sets the number of IDPs at more than 7,7 million. Reports of abuse of the mainly women and children fleeing Ukraine has long circulated and on 29 April Human Rights Watch (HRW) reiterated the increasing risks in Poland the main destination, stating: “Refugees from Ukraine, particularly women and girls, face heightened risks of gender-based violence, trafficking, and other exploitation due to lack of systematic protection and security measures in Poland”. Senior women’s rights researcher for the organisation, Hillary Margolis stated: “Poland’s acceptance of those fleeing the war in Ukraine is a positive shift from its response to other crises, but the lack of basic protection measures risks exposing refugees to serious abuse”.

HRW further warned of the dire situation for vulnerable elderly people in Ukraine: “The impact of war on older people has never been more visible than in the conflict in Ukraine. Images of older people unable to reach the safety of basements, being carried over makeshift bridges or walking through body-strewn streets haunt our screens. Some have been unable to flee. Others have decided not to leave their lifelong homes”, the organisation stated on 2 May. Human rights lawyer for the Institute for Justice and Democracy and volunteer attorney with United Stateless, Kristina Fried, points to the specific challenges for stateless people in Ukraine: “stateless Ukrainians are fighting a losing battle for protection and recognition. Not recognised as nationals by Ukraine or any other state under the operation of its laws, stateless Ukrainians, who number approximately 40,000, are denied access to basic rights and have been the targets of pervasive discrimination as they seek refuge abroad. European states must act decisively within their international legal obligations to ensure protections for all refugees, irrespective of nationality, race, or ethnicity”. According to director for the European Network on Statelessness (ENS), Chris Nash: “The latest information from our members suggests that stateless people and those at risk of statelessness fleeing Ukraine are facing significant barriers to protection”. Nash further stated: “If able to flee, stateless people and those at risk of statelessness face being stuck in limbo in the EU with options limited to applying for asylum, humanitarian protection or statelessness status”. The network has raised the issue with European Commissioner for Home Affairs, Ylva Johansson.

Resources in Poland that has seen more than 3,1 million arrivals since the Russian invasion of Ukraine on 24 February are reportedly “running dry” with housing, job-market and school system under severe pressure. Authorities have been criticised for leaving the main responsibility for the reception of Ukrainians to private citizens and civil society. According to Adriana Porowska, a Polish social worker the flow of volunteers in the initial phase of the displacement crisis has stopped: “There are no new people coming to join the volunteers, only leaving. Those who do sign up have to do more work, and they are even more tired,” she stated to media. The population of Warsaw has grown by roughly 15 percent since the war started and Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski has warned that the city has reached “capacity” and will be unable to absorb future displacement which he deems a risk as the conflict moves East. Families ready to host refugees have already used available spare rooms and while availability of accommodation has dropped significantly rental prices in Warsaw have increased by more than 30 per cent, leaving many people in mass shelters meant for short-term housing. On 5 May Poland and Sweden co-hosted an international donor conference in Warsaw to raise funds for humanitarian efforts to help war-torn Ukraine and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged 200 million euros in humanitarian aid from the EU. Meanwhile, abuse continues at Poland’s border with Belarus where the NGO hotline Alarm Phone has recently reported of four people trapped for more than 20 days after being pushed back by Polish border guards with Belarus rejecting their return.

More than 540,000 arrivals to Hungary have been reported, but the government has been accused of, and according to ECRE member Hungarian Helsinki Committee (HHC) admitted to inflating the number of Ukrainians actually remaining – many have moved on. HHC further states: “it is time to talk about the more important things. Less than 1,5% of those fleeing Ukraine was able to request temporary protection”. The organisation recommends five simply steps to be taken, including: the introduction of an online application process, information in accessible language, information available at border crossings, the involvement of organisations assisting Ukrainian refugees and the granting of temporary protection on the spot in clear cases.

More than 450,000 Ukrainian refugees have crossed the border to Moldova with estimates that 100,000 including 3,500 third country nationals remain in the country – one of Europe’s poorest with a population of just 3 million. Francesca Bonelli, the head of UNHCR’s operations in Moldova admits that the agency was caught off guard in the initial phase: “It happened all so quickly that, like very often happens in an emergency, we were not prepared”. By 27 April, 24,000 Ukrainians were registered for the agency’s cash assistance programme. However, the three quarters of the Ukrainian refugee population in Moldova that have not yet been registered for cash assistance reportedly illustrates challenges of implementation, with waiting time and lack of information constituting obstacles. Further, tensions in the pro-Moscow separatist territory of Transnistria are on the rise and fears of the war spreading to Moldova are reported.

For further information:

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