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Some 250,000 Ukrainians have arrived in Moldova, one of Europe’s poorest countries, in the past fortnight, and emergency accommodation is nearly full
"Inever thought that I would stand on the Moldovan border and it would feel like I was in Syria after the bombing of Aleppo," Tatiana Kebak, a refugee coordinator, says.
During the first ten days of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe, opened its border to 250,000 Ukrainian refugees.
As of 9 March, 100,000 remain in the country, equivalent to around 4% of the population of Moldova. It is already almost impossible to rent housing in the country, which borders both Ukraine and Romania. All refugee camps that were quickly established by the state are now more than 75% full.
"At the start there were only people from Odessa, but now they're coming from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Mariupol and Donbas," explains Kebak, who is helping to run a refugee camp in the Moldovan village of Palanca, close to the Ukrainian border.
"We're meeting people who say: 'My house is no more, my family was killed by a bomb.' The people saw what was happening and took everything they could carry and ran."
An endless stream of people
From the outset, it was clear that Moldova would face a significant number of refugees if Ukraine was attacked - state officials made this point at the end of January. And so the Moldovan authorities' reaction was swift. By the middle of the day on 24 February, mere hours after the start of the invasion, temporary accommodation had been set up at the Palanca checkpoint at the Moldovan-Ukrainian border. The next day, a similar camp was established in the village of Kalarashovka, not far from the busiest checkpoint in the northeastern district of the town of Otaci, which is bordered by the Ukrainian town of Mohilyv-Podilskyi on the other side of the Dniester river.
In these border camps for refugees, as well as at the checkpoints without accommodation, volunteers are on duty around the clock. They provide initial assistance to people arriving in Moldova, help them find transport to their destination or, if necessary, to find a refugee accommodation centre.
Kebak, who is working through the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, says Moldovan authorities have responded quickly to the situation.
"There must have been a plan that was quickly implemented..
"My colleagues from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees have witnessed many conflicts, including their humanitarian side. They were surprised at how quickly Moldova reacted."
Despite their prompt reaction, Moldovan state institutions' resources are unlikely to be enough to deal with the situation, due to the increasing flow of people at the border. The country's Border Police, General Inspectorate for Emergency Situations, and its Bureau for Migration and Asylum are all working at capacity, Kebak says.
By 3 March, the Moldovan authorities had prepared about 25,000 places of temporary accommodation for refugees in 78 temporary accommodation centres. Dumitru Urdea, head of the government's Unified Anti-Crisis Centre, told the press that another 25,000 places would be found in the near future. Temporary accommodation centres have been set up in sports institutions, gyms, cinemas, student hostels, recreation centres, sanatoriums, hospitals and psychologists clinics.
"There are always psychologists in the camp," Kebak explains. "Very often the first questions from people who pass through the border barrier are: 'don't you shoot here? Don't they bomb you?' Of course, they need psychological help.'"
Since the start of the war, Moldova has also become home to an unprecedented volunteer movement,which is helping those fleeing Ukraine. Thousands of people have travelled to checkpoints across the Ukrainian state border to use their own vehicles to assist refugees, as well as helping them to find housing or offering other advice.
Moldovan citizens are also delivering food and other essential goods to refugee accommodation centres and specially organised aid collection points. During the first two days of the war, the huge pavilion of the Moldexpo exhibition complex in the Moldovan capital, Chișinău, was converted into a warehouse and filled with humanitarian aid brought there by local residents.
After a wave of public discontent, some Moldovan banks abandoned their speculative exchange rate for the Hryvnia, allowing the Ukrainian currency to be exchanged at an acceptable price.
But while the initial reaction of volunteers has been "impressive", Kebak says she believes (and understands) that "the enthusiasm of volunteers will fade".
"The volunteers will get tired, they cannot help for free forever. Now the state has little time - while volunteers take on some amount of work - to design new institutions, infrastructure, find people who will deal with all this," she says.
According to Kebak, there has been a certain level of public dissatisfaction towards Ukrainians, which she says could be due to potentially inflated expectations of gratitude from Moldovans. It should be noted that messages criticising Ukrainians spread on Molodvan social networks are often spread by current or former activists of pro-Russian movements or people with pro-Russian positions.
"We should not play rescuers and victims," Kebak says. "People often find themselves in the status of a victim or a saviour, and they begin to like it. We need to treat Ukrainians like citizens of their country. There is no need to have any expectations. People are fleeing the war, they have lost their homes, they have seen death."
Moldova or EU?
While Moldova has won praise for its preparation, it avoided a logistical and humanitarian collapse in the first weeks of the Russian invasion due to the fact that most Ukrainians crossing over the border are using Moldova only as a transit country. From there, many are making their way west, towards countries such as Germany or Poland.
"In the first days, the wealthiest Ukrainians left. Everyone noticed this. People have this opportunity, and we should not blame them for it. Now, more vulnerable people are coming, who often have to walk the last 20 km to the border. Most, of course, want to go to Europe: Poland, Germany, Bulgaria in recent days," says Kebak.
While many refugees are leaving Moldova, more and more are deciding to stay, Kebak says. The problem is that in both Chișinău and the regions, rental accommodation is proving scarce.
Alexander Makukhin, a migration expert and one of the administrators of the government's refugee assistance website, says it's difficult to predict how long these refugees will remain in Moldova.
"People are running here out of fear," he said. "I have come across people who were leaving their cities, almost from being bombed.
"These people, when they reach a safe area, they need to calm down psychologically and understand that they are safe."
Despite the large number of those in need of assistance and protection, few dare to officially apply for asylum in Moldova - instead choosing to enter on a normal visa, which allows Ukrainians to stay in Moldova for up to 90 days every six months.
"Now the most vulnerable are asking for asylum. They are all refugees, but only about two thousand people formally asked for asylum," says Kebak
Will the country make it?
On 7 March, Natalia Gavrilița, the Moldovan prime minister, told a press conference that her country is already in a state of humanitarian catastrophe. Without prompt redirection of the flow of refugees to other countries, the country's financial reserves will not last long.
The Moldovan government is making every effort to simplify the transit of refugees to the EU countries. Despite the EU's assistance, no state reserves will be enough if the number of people fleeing from Ukraine to Moldova continues to increase.
"So far the whole assistance structure works according to the principle of: at least we're doing something, because we don't know what will happen next," says Makukhin.
"The issue is not even social assistance payments, but the provision of basic living conditions."
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