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Some Ukrainian refugees in Poland are now starting to return home


As the fighting continues to shift in Ukraine, Ukrainians are shifting, too. According to the U.N., more than 13 million have been driven from their homes by the war. Nearly 6 million have fled west into Europe, setting off the largest refugee crisis on the continent since World War II. But now many are also crossing back into Ukraine. Statistics from Polish border officials show that on some recent days, as many Ukrainians are returning to their country as fleeing it. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the Polish capital, Warsaw, and joins us to talk about all this. Hi, Jason.


FLORIDO: Jason, most of those refugees ended up going, at least initially, into Poland. What's the situation like right now?

BEAUBIEN: Well, it's certainly less chaotic than when I was here in March. Back at that point, you had more than 100,000 people a day crossing into Poland. A lot of them were ending up at the central bus station here in Warsaw. Many had no idea even where they were going to sleep for the night. Now there still are big tents at the Warsaw bus station. And there's people offering food. And volunteers are helping people find housing and jobs and transportation if they want to try to move further into Europe.

I met this one woman, Maria Doronina. She was trying to get visas to Canada for herself and her two kids, and she was trying to fill out the online application form, including uploading her kids' birth certificates over this old cell phone. But despite that, and even though she's never even been to Canada, she thinks this is the best move for her right now.

MARIA DORONINA: I want my children have future, and I think that the future in Ukraine will be difficult for them. Maybe some time, I will return, but not now.

BEAUBIEN: Even if the war ends tomorrow, she says, she doesn't think the Russian threat to Ukraine is going to go away.

FLORIDO: And yet people are going back into Ukraine anyway. Why is that, Jason?

BEAUBIEN: You know, probably the biggest driver of it is that the Ukrainian military managed to hold off the Russian offensive on Kyiv. You know, missile strikes continue, as they do all over the country, but Kyiv's no longer under a direct military assault by Russian ground troops. So people are hearing that, and they're hearing that it's relatively safe to go back. Also, Ukraine still isn't allowing most men to leave the country. The vast majority of the refugees are women and children. So there's this desire for families to reunite. And finally, some of the push for Ukrainian refugees to return is because for most of them, this is a difficult life.

FLORIDO: Difficult even though Poland has been very welcoming to Ukrainian refugees - what are the conditions like there for them?

BEAUBIEN: Yeah, it's true. I mean, Poland has been bending over backwards in a way that you don't often see in a refugee crisis. They're getting essentially Polish Social Security cards to the Ukrainians so they can work. They're giving them access to health care. Trains and buses are free. They can even get the same unemployment benefits as if they were Polish. But housing is scarce, and most of the refugees are either staying with other Ukrainians who'd been living here before the war, or they're living with Polish families.

FLORIDO: Do you have a sense, Jason, of how long Poland can extend this kind of welcome?

BEAUBIEN: You know, I'm hearing from analysts that this situation is going to have to be carefully managed in the future, particularly in terms of the burden of refugees on schools and on the health care system. But one factor that's really working well for everybody is that Poland's economy has been booming. The unemployment rate here is, like, 3%, so there's a need for more workers. And then the second factor is that many Poles are also afraid that, at some point, they could be the target of Russian aggression. And so supporting the Ukrainians who are showing up here is seen, by many Poles, as doing their part to keep the Russian threat further at bay.

FLORIDO: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien in Warsaw, Poland. Jason, thanks for joining us.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jason Beaubien is NPR's Global Health and Development Correspondent on the Science Desk.