With 11 million people driven from their homes by armed conflict, Ukraine has already become the largest refugee crisis in history

Refugees of the war in Ukraine: when you no longer have a home to return to

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA - Odessa train station, where thousands of Ukrainians crowded into the wagons leaving for the west in the first weeks of the war.

María Senovilla, from Kharkiv (Ukraine)

"We decided to leave on 27 February, when a plane flew over our house and bombed everything around us. My children were very scared, and we knew we had to look for a safer place," says Irina Alexandrovna from Germany, where she has been living as a refugee for almost four months". "We left Kharkiv in our car, wondering where are we going, why are we leaving, for how long? We had no answers, but everything around us was exploding, and the children were panicking. So I cried and left. I didn't know if I would ever be able to go back home".

Along with Irina and her children, more than seven and a half million Ukrainians fled their country during the first weeks of the Russian invasion. Half of them left across the Polish border, but hundreds of thousands also crossed through border crossings in Moldova or Romania. It was the largest exodus of refugees in Europe's history.

"The road was full of cars leaving eastern Ukraine for the western provinces," Irina continues. The journey took about three days, until we arrived in Lviv. There we learned from the news that the whole of Kharkiv was being heavily shelled, and that the Russians were advancing closer and closer. So my husband decided that my children and I would be safer abroad, and that he would stay in Ukraine".

Irina's plight, as she separated from her husband and crossed the border carrying her young children alone, is the plight of all Ukrainian women who have fled the country. Men between the ages of 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave Ukraine for the duration of the war and Martial Law. And the farewells at the borders, at all borders, were heartbreaking.

On holiday in a "surprise" place 

Irina had friends in Germany, so she decided she would try to get there. But it wasn't easy: "We found a minibus carrying refugees from Lviv, but due to the large number of people who wanted to cross to Europe at that time, we were stuck at the border for two days until we reached Poland. All that time we were in a small minibus, watching non-stop the news about what was happening in Ukraine. I was very worried about my mother, who stayed in Kharkiv, about my brother, about my husband...", Irina continues.

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA – Más de siete millones de ucranianos cruzaron la frontera para salir del país durante los dos primeros meses de la invasión, en su mayoría mujeres con niños

Those who did not make the journey by road travelled by train. The metal carriages, painted bright blue, departed from stations in the eastern provinces, but also from Kyiv and Odessa - where the imminent threat of an amphibious landing had created a climate of overwhelming tension.

The images circulating of crowded trains are still shocking. Some people have photos and videos on their mobile phones of what the journeys were like, often lasting more than 20 hours, with people crammed into the aisles, or even inside cupboards and refrigerators used to carry food.

But at that time the only thing that mattered was to get out of the country so as not to perish under the bombs and to protect the children. Above all, to protect the children. It is almost impossible to describe the anguish of the people who had fled from places like Mariupol or Mikolaiv. The lump in their throats that barely allowed them to speak, the concern for those who remained, or the image of the shelling etched on their retinas made it very difficult to interview them at the time. Their pain and grief went beyond words.

As they rested in the train stations where they changed trains, dozens of volunteers brought them warm food and new clothes. For many of them had left their homes with only the clothes on their backs. In some waiting rooms, toys were left on the seats for the little ones, who, oblivious to everything and overcoming their tiredness, picked up their new treasures and played. Most of the children were told that they were going on holiday to a "surprise" place.

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA – Un niño en brazos de su padre, del que está a punto de despedirse, para subir a un autobús rumbo a Polonia que partía desde la castigada ciudad de Mikolaiv
Poland and Germany, the main recipients of refugees in Europe 

Of the three and a half million Ukrainians who crossed into Poland, more than one million continue to live there. The country surprised the world by its compassionate reception of refugees from Ukraine, after refusing to do the same for those fleeing Syria or Afghanistan.

Polish train stations became makeshift reception centres, and thousands of private citizens volunteered to welcome those fleeing war into their homes in the middle of winter, in sub-zero temperatures.

Those who continued on their way, like Irina, reached Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy or Spain - which is currently hosting 120,000 Ukrainian refugees. EU countries have exceptionally granted residence and work permits to refugees arriving from Ukraine, thus avoiding an unprecedented backlog that would have occurred if they had to go through the lengthy procedures required of asylum seekers of other nationalities.

"We managed to get to Germany," Irina continues. "At first we lived with people who took us in, and then, when we filled in the necessary documents, they gave us a house of our own. As I am a mother with two small children, they also help us financially". "But Germany is a country with a different culture. It is hard. Nobody here cares about how the other person is doing. Most people won't help you if you ask them to help you in some way," she concludes sadly.

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA – Decenas de voluntarios ofrecían comida y ropa a los refugiados que descansaban en la estación de tren de Odesa durante el mes de marzo
Internally displaced persons 

In eight years of armed clashes in Dombash - between 2014 and 2022 - there had been 800,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Ukraine. Most of them were people living in Donetsk and Luhansk. But in four months of the Russian invasion, more than 6,000,000 new IDPs have been registered, changing the social map of Ukraine in record time.

"I made the decision to leave Kharkiv when a rocket passed over my head, and a couple of seconds later there was an explosion. During the day we had taken shelter from the din of shelling in the metro, together with our neighbours and our dog, but I didn't want to leave the city because I am a health worker," recalls Vladlena Rozhkova, a rehabilitator who lived for two and a half months as a displaced person in Lviv.

"I tried to get my mother and my son to leave, but the child refused to leave without me. It was almost impossible to leave the city in those days. Crowds, panic, crushes at the train station... We got a driver to take us to Uman - for $1,200 - where my son-in-law and daughter picked us up to continue our journey".

According to the UN, 40% of these IDPs have moved to Ukraine's westernmost provinces such as Lviv, Volhynia and Ivano-Frankivsk. Almost two million people from elsewhere now live there. And the consequences have been felt in, for example, the price of rents. Rents have skyrocketed. The Ukrainian government gives a small amount of financial assistance to these internally displaced persons, but it is by no means enough to live on.

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA – Niños en la sala de espera de la estación de tren de Odesa, donde a veces permanecían durante horas, debido a los retrasos por la saturación que había en el servicio ferroviario ucraniano en las primeras semanas en la invasión
When nostalgia overcomes fear

"We wanted to go home from the moment we left Kharkiv. Inside everything was shrinking because of what was happening, because of the uncertainty and bewilderment of accepting that a war was starting in my homeland. How was it possible?" wonders Vladlena.

"I felt bitterness and also shame for fleeing our city. Although we liked Lviv, and we had been there many times on holiday, this time we didn't enjoy it. Always thinking about those who had stayed behind. Writing and calling family and friends. So as soon as the situation improved a bit, we went back to Kharkiv".

She was not the only one. In Kharkiv, this gradual return of residents became evident from 15 May, when the Ukrainian Ministry of Defence announced a major military victory in the north of the region. The army managed to push Russian troops back to the border with Belgorod. Since then, an estimated 2,000 people have returned to Belgorod every day.

However, the fighting in this region is far from over and the villages liberated by the Ukrainian armed forces continue to be systematically shelled. Most of the population in these places has had to be evacuated, and entire villages have been reduced to rubble.

25% of homes bombed 

In the capital it is not much better either. Every night, usually between eleven and twelve o'clock, Russia says goodnight to Kharkiv in the form of missiles. The heavy nightly bombardment never lets up for a single day, while thousands of people return home not knowing whether their houses are still standing.

One quarter of the buildings are damaged by shelling. In addition to hospitals, schools and government centres, 3,500 residential buildings have been destroyed by bombs. Some are more than fifteen storeys high. If we multiply, we can get an idea of the thousands of families who have been left without a home to return to in Ukraine's second largest city.

This is not the case for Irina Alexandrovna, who for the moment does have a home to return to. Although she remains a refugee in Germany with her two young children, "as soon as there is a chance, and Ukraine is calmer, I will definitely return home. The children want to go back every day," she confesses.

PHOTO/MARIA SENOVILLA – Un pueblo del norte de Járkiv, reducido prácticamente a escombros por los incesantes bombardeos rusos

According to estimates by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), of the more than seven million Ukrainians who fled the country at the beginning of the war, approximately two million have returned. Many of them are disenchanted with the treatment they have received in Europe, where the initial euphoria about welcoming them has faded with the passing months and the loss of media attention on the conflict.

Others have returned simply because they missed their homes and families. Husbands, fathers, brothers who cannot cross the border, and many older people who simply do not want to. "I'd rather be killed at home," say almost all the elderly when you ask them why they refuse to evacuate.

So the refugees' plight is twofold: homesickness for their homes, and concern for those they leave behind. More than enough reasons to overcome fear and return home. Even if they no longer have a home, even if they have to live with the bombings.

There are currently more than 5,000,000 Ukrainian refugees in the world. Almost three and a half million have temporary protection status granted by EU countries. Another one million people are in Russia - many report having been forcibly evacuated there - and the more than six million internally displaced people must be added to make up the picture of the people who have been driven from their homes by the war in Ukraine in 2022.