More than 300,000 Ukrainians have fled to the European Union since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Thursday, and the bloc is bracing itself for the arrival of up to four million Ukrainian refugees, E.U. officials said on Sunday.
The European Commission, the bloc’s executive arm, will ask member nations next week to grant temporary asylum to all Ukrainians coming to the bloc for up to three years, the bloc’s commissioner for home affairs, Ylva Johansson, told reporters on Sunday. Member nations will have to agree, but Ms. Johansson said after a meeting of interior ministers on Sunday that “an overwhelming majority” was in favor.
Seven million Ukrainians are expected to be displaced as a consequence of the Russian invasion.
Ukrainians can stay visa-free in the European Union for up to 90 days, and they can move freely between member nations. According to the commission, many have already left the first country they arrived in and headed to countries with big Ukrainian diasporas, mainly the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal and Spain.
So far, a limited number of Ukrainians have applied for asylum, Ms. Johansson said, with most joining their relatives who already live in the European Union. “But things will change, and we need to be prepared for much higher number of people trying to come,” she added.
Ukrainian refugees were met with “impressive solidarity” from citizens and governments of the member nations bordering Ukraine — Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary — according to Ms. Johansson.
In Poland, a massive grass-roots mobilization of citizens is helping Ukrainian refugees — taking them into their homes, transporting them through the border, feeding them and clothing them. On the government level, Poland has prepared a train to transport wounded Ukrainians from the city of Mosciska to Warsaw, Poland’s capital, where they will be dispatched to different hospitals.
Poland, which already is home to millions of Ukrainians, has been the main destination for those fleeing the Russian invasion. Polish authorities said that so far 213,000 Ukrainians have crossed into the country. The country has opened its border with Ukraine to all, regardless of their legal status.
“Anyone fleeing from bombs, from Russian rifles, can count on the support of the Polish state,” the Polish interior minister, Mariusz Kaminski, told reporters on Thursday.
Slovakia announced that all Ukrainians coming to the country will get a temporary residency, with free health care and permission to work. And the government of the hard-line Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban passed a special decree last week, granting all Ukrainians temporary protection.
This stands in stark contrast to the earlier attitude of the nationalist Eastern European governments, which for years resisted taking in their share of the more than one million asylum seekers, mainly from Syria, who came to the bloc during the 2015 refugee crisis.
Polish authorities are currently building a wall at its border with Belarus, after thousands of Middle Eastern refugees and migrants tried to reach the country last year, with the vast majority being pushed back into Belarus by army and border guards. An unknown number of migrants remain stranded at the border, and aid organizations reported last week that a 26-year-old man from Yemen froze to death.