Inside Ukraine's refugee crisis

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Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)
Ukrainians crowd under a destroyed bridge as they try to flee crossing the Irpin river in the outskirts of Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, March 5, 2022. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Russian helicopters landed near Oleksandr's home in Ukraine.

That was the moment he and his family knew they had to flee, joining the more than two million Ukrainians who are now refugees:

“Those are real people and real pain. They never wanted to leave for other countries," Oleksandr Mykhed, writer, literary scholar and art curator, says. "Amount of pain through these two weeks, you could not imagine that.”

Volunteers in neighboring countries have rushed to their borders to help:

"We have this banner that says ‘You're safe, welcome, you're safe’ and they're starting to cry when they see that," Natasja Bogacz, who works with Caritas Norway, helping refugees crossing into Poland, says.

Today, On Point: Two million refugees, and counting. We discuss the humanitarian catastrophe of Russia's attack on Ukraine.


Sarah Deardorff Miller, senior fellow at Refugees International. She teaches courses on refugee protection at the University of London and Georgetown University.

Natasja Bogacz, she works with Caritas Norway, helping refugees crossing into Poland.

Kateryna Babkina, Ukrainian poet, playwright and author. She lived in Kyiv, but fled to Poland.

Oleksandr Mykhed, writer, literary scholar, art curator and a member of PEN Ukraine. He fled his home in Hostomel and is now working as a volunteer in Chernivtsi.

Looking for reputable organizations that support refugees? 

Organizations include UNHCR - The UN Refugee Agency, Médecins Sans Frontières, International Committee of the Red CrossCARE - Fighting Global Poverty and World Hunger, Caritas and Save the Children.

Transcript: Scenes From Poland's Border

Two million Ukrainians and counting have had to flee Ukraine in the past 12 days. Another million have been displaced internally inside of Ukraine. 

Now, 1.2 million of those Ukrainians have crossed into the border into Poland. Below, we hear from Natasja Bogacz. She works with Caritas Norway, helping refugees who are crossing into Poland.


NATASJA BOGACZ: Hi. Hello. How are you?

CHAKRABARTI: I think the question is more, How are you? And how are all the people you are trying to help? So can you tell me a little bit first about what you have been doing and what you have been seeing, with the refugees coming to you?

BOGACZ: Well, thank you. First of all, I'm actually not a volunteer. I'm employed, by Caritas Norway, who sent me here. But I feel like, I mean, I'm doing all the work that the volunteers are doing, and I haven't had a free day in the week. So I guess this is a lot of the same kind of work. But I'm here mostly to let Norwegian people also know what's happening in the Norwegian government, because we need their help here. But yeah, everyone's asking me how I am and it's hard. But I'm fine.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so as I said, 1.2 million and counting of those refugees have made it to Poland. It's a huge number for Poland to have to assist. Can you tell us a little bit about the conditions, what aid Poland is able to give, what conditions the refugees are facing?

BOGACZ: Yes. Yes. I mean, the numbers are unbelievable. It's kind of overwhelming, really. And also because it's like women and children ... really small children. It's just like I said, it's heartbreaking, overwhelming. And I mean, I'm really happy to be able to be here and help with Caritas on the border. Because this is the first point where we can help together with volunteers. I mean, I think that the numbers of volunteers in Caritas also must have tripled in the last few days, because everyone's coming to us and they want to help.

And what we do is we are on the border and then we welcome the refugees and give them something warm to eat and to drink, because they're freezing. They've been waiting in line for many, many hours and sometimes days. And the weather here now is unusually bad. It's really cold. I've never been this cold in my life. ... The wind is blowing. I mean, we had a kid here last night that his body temperature was like 28 degrees Celsius, which is very, very low. So they are very cold. They're very tired. But really most of them, they just want to get to the transportation point and just get to where they're going as fast as possible. Because they've been already traveling for many, many hours.

CHAKRABARTI: So this cold, though, I just want to make a note of it that there's an Arctic cold mass over Eastern Europe right now. And I'm seeing that the daytime high temperature for our U.S. listeners in the 20 degrees Fahrenheit in the for the daytime highs. And supposed to stay cold like that for many, many days. I mean, certainly that's a great danger to people to be exposed to that for hours and days.

BOGACZ: And yeah, especially to kids, like small kids getting cold really fast. And even the temperature is not the worst, it is the wind that is the worst because it's making it even colder.

CHAKRABARTI: Now where are the refugees able to go after they have crossed the border and groups like Caritas Norway first welcome them? Because I'm seeing, you know, reports of some have had to sleep for days in train stations in Warsaw, for example. Tell me more.

BOGACZ: Yeah, and this is what we've been seeing the last two or three days. I mean most of the refugees crossing, they have friends or family in Poland. Because you have to remember that since 2014, when the wars in Ukraine started, we've had almost two million, 1.5. I don't know what the exact numbers, already of refugees or refugees in Poland, people who just moved here and found work and have been living here ever since. And a lot of those crossing now are the family of those people that have been already living in Poland, and they're trying to get to them. So of course, the problem is transportation. Because there's so many people. But I mean, the transportation is for free. All the trains and everything.

So it just takes time because you have to wait and then it takes time to travel in Poland. It's a big country and if you're going to Warsaw, it's going to take you another couple of hours from the border to get there, depending on where you're crossing. But the refugees are free to go wherever they want, and they are getting the information about the points where they can find shelter if they don't have a place to go. Because as I was saying, most of the people, they have an address, they know where they go and they're going somewhere to friends and family, often abroad. Berlin is popular, other countries. But more and more people have no idea what to do. The moment they cross the border, they just stand there.

And I think it's difficult, especially with the older people, because I feel like the younger, the mothers, even when they have like three four children with them, they're going to get help and they know they are resourceful and they will kind of manage, maybe. But the older people ... never been abroad. I mean, most of those people has never traveled so far in their lives, and it's additionally difficult for them. And I've seen a woman ... right now I'm in the refugee center two kilometers away from the border. But I spend the day on the border like taking people and helping them carry their baggage just across, crossing in case there was family already waiting there for them.

But I saw a woman. I think she might have been like 70 or 75, just sitting there. And she didn't have a place to go and she just looked like so helpless ... even registering what was happening. Like, I don't know what will happen with her, but it's just so sad. It's a tragedy to look at it. And I don't know how I can help.

... People with humanitarian organizations that's been in many wars before, but they've never seen this kind of response, when the refugees are being taken in by families, by people from all over the country. And they're coming here to the border, they can register and they can offer accommodation. And even my high school friend right now, she's running a hotel and she just turned it around for a refugee shelter. She just texted me today. She has like almost 40 people. It's families, the whole families. And yeah, people are taking them in.

CHAKRABARTI: They're doing the best they can. I'm seeing that Poland is taking in more than 100,000 new refugees every day. If those numbers continue, which they almost certainly will. What happens in other mass forced migration situations is that refugee camps have to be created. Could that happen in Poland?

BOGACZ: Yeah, I don't really know. I don't really follow the news, but I try to stay away from the news, actually. But yeah, I mean, we are getting at the max capacity. Like all the schools, the gym halls and the cultural center. Right now I'm sitting, this is a cultural center every day, and now it's filled with refugees, and all of the places are getting full. ... I don't know what's going to happen, but it's going to be really bad.

CHAKRABARTI: Natasha, my last question for you. You mentioned at the beginning that Caritas Norway and other groups are also trying to get other governments to provide more assistance. Can you tell me more about that?

BOGACZ: We need to also be able to send more help to Ukraine, it's very difficult. I think that Caritas is one of the few organizations who somehow with the contacts they have in the church and in Ukraine, they are managing to send like ten trucks every day with humanitarian aid with food, especially and medicine. But I don't know how long we can continue to do that. And I just spoke to the foreign minister of Norway. This is why I'm here today.

And she spoke to many refugees and was crying, and I think that she really understood the magnitude and the scale of the problem. And I hope that the region and also the EU governments, they will support Poland in just like being able to send the resources that we need to provide for all these people. Because most of them, I mean, they don't want to go further away than Poland.

Like they have the possibility to go to other countries, but they want to stay here, preferably close to the border, because the hope for the world war to end any day now is really big. Every one of them, they want to go home as soon as possible. And in case the war might end this week, they want to be close to the border. So we just need to be able to provide for them here. And for that, we just need resources.

Related Reading

Financial Times: "Letter from Ukraine: the language of war" — "A leading Ukrainian writer recalls the Russian assault on his home near Kyiv — and asks what artists should do in wartime."

Ponars Eurasia: "The Journey from Kyiv to Lviv | Ivan Gomza" — "Leaving my apartment in Kyiv, I deliberately stopped the wall clock at 5 AM. I hope the apartment will stand so that I can come back and set the right time. If not, I hope the wall where it hangs will stand to symbolize when I became an IDP."

This program aired on March 9, 2022.


Stefano Kotsonis Senior Producer, On Point
Stefano Kotsonis is a senior producer for WBUR's On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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