PRZEMYSL, Poland – This Polish town on the Ukrainian border has witnessed a startling phenomenon – thousands of Ukrainian refugees are returning to their homeland, even as Russia continues to wage war there.
According to the latest figures from the Polish border police, around 13,000 people returned on Tuesday and 12,000 returned on Monday. It is estimated that more than 370,000 have returned since the start of the Russian invasion on February 24.
The reasons for returns are varied. Some refugees have run out of money or have been unable to find or pay for accommodation outside the refugee camps. In Poland in particular, which has taken in around 2.3 million Ukrainians, delays in receiving government subsistence funds have led some to decide to return home.
At Przemyśl station, long queues form in front of trains bound for the cities of Lviv, kyiv and Odessa, which returned empty to Ukraine at the start of the invasion.
“It’s always better at home,” said Lilia Shuba, 42, a teacher from Vynohradiv in western Ukraine, who is queuing for the train to Lviv. “We left a week ago, and now we’re going back. My husband has volunteered for the army and there is no one in our house.
She and her 3-year-old son, Oleksandr, spent 13 hours at the Hungarian border leaving Ukraine.
“I left to gather my strength and now we are going back to wait for the end of the war in Ukraine,” she said.
During weeks, Przemyśl has been Europe’s biggest hub for Ukrainians fleeing their homeland and thousands of new refugees are still arriving every day.
Almost all store windows display a Ukrainian flag, and banners and billboards welcoming Ukrainians can be seen all over the medieval Polish town, which was a popular tourist destination before the pandemic.
At Przemyśl station, those fleeing and those returning now meet for a few hours a day and exchange experiences.
“We are aware of the reported returns to Ukraine and we respect people’s choice,” said Victoria Andrievska, spokeswoman for UNHCR, the UN refugee agency.
“They are in a better position to assess their personal situation. However, UNHCR is not helping people to return at the moment,” she said.
International volunteers from Western European countries such as the UK and Spain can be seen all over the station, helping arriving people to get a hot meal, travel tickets, clothes, toys for their children and even vaccines for their pets. Volunteers also report that refugees are returning in large numbers.
“We saw several thousand people passing through Przemyśl every day. As the biggest crossing point in Europe, we probably see most people going back,” said Ada Wordsworth, 23, who interrupted her Masters in Slavic Studies at Oxford University to help cope with the crisis and helped with the Russian translation. for three weeks.
“I was completely surprised when I saw it, it was shocking. The first family I met coming back wanted to go to Kharkiv,” she recalled, referring to the Ukrainian city which was heavily shelled by Russian forces.
At first, only one or two people returned, usually to pick up pets or family members after leaving the country on their own.
“Western media wants to see Ukraine as this gray, dark, depressing post-Soviet space that no one would want to go back to, but in fact everyone I spoke to said they wanted to come back as soon as possible” , says Wordsworth.
“In general, these are people who have not been able to find work, who have not been able to find accommodation. Others were scammed and lost a lot of money in Poland,” she said.
She and other volunteers say the EU must recognize that most Ukrainian refugees want to stay in Poland or Moldova, where the language and environment are more similar to theirs, and that funds should be redirected there from the rest of the block.
“The current trend of returns disrupts the perception in the West that their countries are the end of the world and everyone just wants to end up there,” she said.
For Dariusz Stola, a historian at the Polish Academy of Sciences who has published several books on migration, the returns match historical patterns.
“Even during peacetime migration, a number of people decide to return even when they intended to stay, because the migration experience is not what they expected,” said he declared.
“Some people’s emotional needs can be stronger than the fear of war. They might interpret the news from Ukraine in a way that strengthens their resolve to return,” Stola said. “The emotional cost of a separation under dramatic conditions may seem greater than the fear of possibly being affected by Russian bombardments.”
Those who left initially “might decide it’s better for them to stay with family, friends and the people you love than to be away and wake up each day worried about what happened to their husbands, parents and other people they left behind in Ukraine,” he said. noted.