Ukrainians Who Fled To Russia Find The Welcome Is No Longer Warm

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Employees prepare a convoy of four trucks transporting warm clothes and shoes to refugees in Ukraine, at the initiative of the French Red Cross, on Feb. 26 in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, France. (AFP/Getty Images)
Employees prepare a convoy of four trucks transporting warm clothes and shoes to refugees in Ukraine, at the initiative of the French Red Cross, on Feb. 26 in Saint-Quentin-Fallavier, France. (AFP/Getty Images)

One part of the refugee crisis in Europe has largely been forgotten: the plight of people who've been displaced by the war in eastern Ukraine. Life is getting harder for some refugees who fled to Russia.

Russia's Federal Migration Service says more than a million people fled from eastern Ukraine to Russia to escape the warfare of the past two years. During the heaviest fighting, families crossed the border into Russia with everything they could carry in suitcases and sacks.

Svetlana Gannushkina, the head of the Civic Assistance Committee, a volunteer group that helps refugees, says the Ukrainians got a warm welcome at first.

"When all this began, with our invasion of Ukraine, they opened high quality camps for the newcomers," she says. "For the first time, Russia decently accepted the flood of refugees that it had provoked."

But Gannushkina says Russia's enthusiasm for helping the Ukrainians quickly waned.

Food is distributed to Ukrainian refugees at a camp in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on April 7, 2015. Russia's Federal Migration Service says more than a million people have fled from eastern Ukraine to Russia to escape the warfare of the past two years.
Food is distributed to Ukrainian refugees at a camp in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don on April 7, 2015. Russia's Federal Migration Service says more than a million people have fled from eastern Ukraine to Russia to escape the warfare of the past two years.

Many people from eastern Ukraine have relatives in Russia and they were able to move from the camps to stay with family members. But others stayed on simply because they had nowhere else to go.

Camp Romashka ("Daisy") is a small resort on the shore of the Azov Sea in southern Russia. In the summer, it's a popular camp for kids from nearby cities, but until February, it also housed about 120 Ukrainian refugees.

Natalya Butko, a 36-year-old mother of three from Donetsk — which is now controlled by pro-Russian militants — says she's been living here with her kids for more than a year-and-a-half. They can't go home, she says, because the windows of her house were blown out by shelling and many of her possessions were stolen by looters.

Raisa Latyuk, 60, comes from the town of Gorlovka, not far from the front line between the Russian-backed militants and Ukrainian troops. She says her house was damaged, not destroyed. But ongoing fighting between the two sides means that shells often hit her old neighborhood.

"I don't worry about myself," she says, "but my husband. He's had two heart attacks and I need to protect him from this."

Refugees from eastern Ukraine queued to get food in a refugee camp near the city of Donetsk, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, in August 2014.
Refugees from eastern Ukraine queued to get food in a refugee camp near the city of Donetsk, near the Russian-Ukrainian border, in August 2014.

Refugee housing is a strain on government budgets at a time when Russia is facing a financial crisis. Gannushkina, the refugee advocate, says Russian authorities are now moving aggressively to close refugee centers and concentrate the remaining refugees in a few places.

Six centers in the Rostov-on-Don region, in southern Russia, have closed since the first of the year. The Romashka camp was closed in February, and residents like Butko and Latyuk have been shifted into a single camp with a few hundred other people.

Gannushkina says it's a mistake for Russia not to put more effort into integrating the Ukrainians — especially since Russia has been fighting to reverse its own population decline.

"It's clear that we need to compensate for population loss with migration," she says, "and it's in Russia's interest to take in people with a closely related culture."

Gannushkina says that of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who fled to Russia, only about 275 have actually received formal refugee status. The rest, she says, have largely been left to fend for themselves.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Copyright NPR. View this article on npr.org.