In less than three weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has sent 3 million people fleeing their homes to neighboring countries — with still millions more displaced domestically — in what has quickly become Europe’s worst migrant crisis since World War II.
While the majority have been compassionately welcomed by host countries rejecting President Vladimir Putin’s indiscriminate attack, the sudden influx of people is having a profound impact on the European landscape — with potentially significant consequences.
Nowhere is that impact more pronounced than in Poland.
According to CNBC, since the start of the war on Feb. 24, Poland has welcomed over 1.8 million refugees — almost twice the 1 million authorities had anticipated and increasing its population by 4.8%.
The east European country is a natural point of entry for Ukrainians owing to their 530-kilometer shared land border, as well as numerous historical, cultural and economic ties. Indeed, there is already a sizeable Ukrainian diaspora in Poland following an earlier spate of migration after Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.
But as the number of refugees requiring humanitarian assistance spirals well beyond initial estimates, it is putting considerable strain on the government and the dozens of relief agencies that have mobilized to help them.
“First, all of the people knew where they wanted to go. They had some friends they wanted to stay with [in Poland],” said Dominika Chylewska, head of communications at Caritas Polska, a charity offering relief to migrants at Polish reception points including Przemysl, a city 12 kilometers from Ukraine’s border.
Others still planned to travel further afield to Berlin, Prague and Tallinn, she said.
“Now, we already see that there are more people coming without any final destination,” said Chylewska.
If, as many fear, Russia succeeds in its invasion and installs a pro-Kremlin government, the likelihood of migrants returning home is far lower.
But if, as Western allies hope, there is a resolution to the conflict that restores a sovereign Ukraine, the majority of migrants may choose to return home and embark on the lengthy task of rebuilding their war-torn country.
“Most who left would like to be able to go back,” said Bosoni. “They are not economic migrants, they are people escaping war and death.”