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Desperate Ukrainians fleeing across western borders

A woman holds a baby after crossing the border from Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing from war by crossing their borders to the west in search of safety. They left their country as Russia pounded their capital and other cities with airstrikes for a second day on Friday. Cars were backed up for several kilometers (miles) at some border crossings as authorities in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova mobilized to receive them, offering them shelter, food and legal help. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)
A woman holds a baby after crossing the border from Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania, Friday, Feb. 25, 2022. Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing from war by crossing their borders to the west in search of safety. They left their country as Russia pounded their capital and other cities with airstrikes for a second day on Friday. Cars were backed up for several kilometers (miles) at some border crossings as authorities in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova mobilized to receive them, offering them shelter, food and legal help. (AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru)

Thousands of Ukrainians are fleeing war at home by crossing the borders into countries to the west in search of safety as Russia pounded their capital and other cities with air strikes for a second day.

Cars were backed up for several miles at some border crossings as authorities in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova mobilised to receive them, offering shelter, food and legal help.

They also eased usual border procedures including Covid-19 testing requirements.

POLITICS Ukraine
(PA Graphics)

At a major border crossing in Medyka, Poland, Ukrainians arrived on foot and by car and train and were greeted by Polish authorities and volunteers offering food and hot drinks.

Slovakian police said most of the people arriving at the border were women with children after Ukraine banned men aged 18 to 60 from leaving the country, and this appeared to be the case everywhere.

Some sought to join relatives who had already settled in Poland and other EU nations, whose strong economies have for years attracted Ukrainian workers.

Marika Sipos fled Koson, a village in western Ukraine close to the Hungarian border, arriving early on Friday in Lonya, Hungary.

“We had to leave behind everything, our whole life’s work,” she said, describing it as a “terrible feeling” to leave her property.

Romania Ukraine Invasion
Volunteers prepare sandwiches for refugees crossing the into Romania (Andreea Alexandru/AP)

Erika Barta, arriving from Backi Breg, Ukraine, said she would seek shelter with relatives in Hungary and planned to return when the danger passes.

“It’s not safe at home any more,” she said.

For many the first stop was a train station in Przemysl, a city near Medyka in south-eastern Poland which is a transit point for many.

Ukrainians slept on camp beds and in chairs as they awaited their next moves, relieved for now just to escape the shelling of Kyiv and other places.

Moldova Ukraine Invasion
A humanitarian centre for refugees at the Moldovan border (Aurel Obreja/AP)

Italian premier Mario Draghi spoke in parliament on Friday of the “long lines of cars leaving Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, heading mostly towards EU borders”, and said “it is possible to imagine a huge influx of refugees toward neighbouring European countries”.

“The images we are seeing – of unarmed civilians forced to hide in bunkers and subways – are terrible and bring us back to the darkest days of European history,” he said.

The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimated more than 100,000 people were believed to have left their homes in Ukraine and that up to four million people may flee to other countries if the situation escalates.

Hungary, which mobilised its military to help, announced this week that all Ukrainian citizens arriving from Ukraine, and all third-country nationals legally residing there, would be entitled to protection.

The welcome that Poland and Hungary are showing Ukrainians now is very different from the unwelcoming stance they have had to refugees and migrants from the Middle East and Africa in recent years.

Hungary built a wall to keep them out when a million people, many Syrians fleeing war, arrived in Europe in 2015.

Poland is building its own wall at the Belarus border after thousands of mostly Middle Eastern migrants sought to enter in recent months.

Cars arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland
Cars arriving at the border crossing in Medyka, Poland (Czarek Sokolowski/AP)

The EU accused Russia-backed Belarus of encouraging that migration to destabilise the EU. Some of the people denied entry into Poland died in forests.

But Ukrainians are a different matter — Europeans who are mostly Christian, and to the Poles, fellow Slavs with similar linguistic and cultural roots.

Transcarpathia, Ukraine’s westernmost region which borders Hungary, is home to about 150,000 ethnic Hungarians, many of whom are Hungarian citizens.

While Russia’s invasion has not yet extended to that area, which is separated from the rest of Ukraine by the Carpathian Mountains, many have decided not to wait for the situation to get worse.

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