We left on Sunday, February 6th, to report from different places along the Ukrainian border. As the war rages on in Ukraine and people are fleeing the country, we are trying to understand the needs and challenges at these new border crossing hotspots. We consider this necessary not only for people fleeing directly from Ukraine but for all people on the move. We see our flexibility, hands-on mentality, and network-based work approach as our greatest strengths. So, a small group of Blindspots members has left to travel along the Ukrainian border and connect with local groups to see what kind of support is needed and to gather first hand information. Based on this research, we started the project “Exit Bus” to support all people fleeing at the Slovakian-Ukrainian border across EU borders. With our new series “Memos from Borders” and “Reports along Borders” we want to share our findings and give the public insight into the situation on the ground.
Our first stop was the Dworzec autobusowy Warszawa Centralna (central station). It is one of the main transportation hubs for refugees. There, a spontaneous association of Polish civilians provides donations and information to the refugees. For people without Ukrainian passport, Grupa Granica has set up an information stand and is looking for contacts in German cities to which they can send busses of BIPoC.
A Polish citizen who is volunteering at the train station reports about many people donating items and showing their solidarity. Many of the volunteers often stay longer than planned. In her opinion, being able to help the refugees makes the volunteers feel better as they can contribute something instead of passively watching what is happening in Ukraine.
Hrebenne border crossing
At our next stop, the small border crossing in Hrebenne, buses with mostly women and children from Ukraine arrive continuously. Here they are provided with food, hot drinks, and basic necessities by Polish volunteers and small initiatives. Basic structures were set up by the military consisting of tents, fire barrels and wood. The redistribution of donations is unequal, resulting in loads of donations being available at Polish hotspots but missing at smaller crossings.
Medyka border crossing
Medyka is the largest border crossing with Ukraine in the South, not far from Krakow. The border area is only accessible to organizations and press. IOM (International Office for Migration) and many Polish volunteers have set up a transfer camp. Here, large numbers of arrivals are received, provided with necessities and transported to Krakow and Warsaw. Due to media attention, a lot of donations are handed in. Medyka has – in contrast to small border crossings like Hrebenne – a well-functioning structure, which is being further expanded by large organizations and local associations. As the humanitarian corridor installed by Russia leads through Lviv and Medyka, increasing numbers of people are expected in this area as long as the corridors stay in action. Despite the established organization, especially for people without Ukrainian passport and BIPoC, the area is considered as unsafe due to reported aggression and unequal treatment towards non-white persons.
Przemyśl train station
As the largest city in the border area, Przemyśl has become a transfer point. People who entered at different border crossings are brought here by buses to continue further west by trains. Staging areas have been set up for people on the move to find refuge from the cold and to spend the nights. A large police force and the Polish military are monitoring the area. The local celebration fire brigade and small associations carry the supplies.
Kroscienko, Polands most southern border crossing
In the small village of Kroscienko in the South of Poland, different organizations including Caritas and Malteser as well as volunteer firefighters and the police have built up a functioning structure. 2,000 fleeing Ukrainians arrive every day via this border crossing. Donations such as basic food, clothing, and medical care are sorted in an old school 9km from the border point and are then transported to the crossing.
In Hrebenne, we observed men walking and buses traveling back to Ukraine to fight. We also spoke to a group of international volunteer soldiers further down the border who registered to fight for the Ukrainian army.
For several volunteers and volunteering soldiers, their motivation for solidarity, activism, or service is the empathy with the Ukrainian people. Some from e.g. Baltic states or Georgia tell us about their worries of their countries also being attacked by Russia. Their countries share a similar history and, therefore, the Russian invasion in Ukraine is seen as an attack on a peaceful order that should be protected in companion.
Two volunteers reported about the lack of information about their upcoming service. They spoke about their fear of being behold in the Ukrainian army for longer than intended with the rumor of even having their passports confiscated. Apparently, the situation in terms of international law for international soldiers in the Ukrainian army is not yet fully clarified.
Private transportation and evacuation of people on the move
At all border crossings, there are sprinters and transporters from Germany and other EU countries offering rides and arranging places to stay in their cities. Also, e.g. in Kroscienko, volunteers offer private taxi rides to reception points or train stations in order to speed up the border crossing processes. As desirable as that is, human trafficking is becoming an issue. Especially at night, when food distribution is on hold, there are people loitering around, forcing women and children to go with them. It is highly recommended to register with the local coordination when searching for transportation.
Border organization and structure
After a week of travels, we were still off-put by the glorifying behavior towards big organizations like IOM (International Office for Migration). At the Medyka border crossing, a pianist came from Spain to play for the people on a grand mobile piano. Volunteers from all over the world came and cheered about the ongoing solidarity. While the everyday life of NGOs in other border areas such as the Bosnian-Croatian border is characterized by regular personal checks, fear of repression, and even arrests, here, the border police acts kindly and attentive. The media presence as well as treatment and acting from volunteers surprises – especially when used to scenes from other borders where pushbacks, repression, and criminalization of migration as well as its support are daily business. IOM was widely involved in such criminalization while now, flight movements from Ukraine are evaluated completely differently.
New Blindspots project at the Slovakian border: “Exit Bus – safe passage for all”
In Ubl’a at the Slovakian border, the need of support is greater than at the borders of Poland where the attention is already quite broad. The community of Ubl’a has set up tents on a square in the village to provide arrivals with goulash and borschtsch, coffee and SIM cards. An initial distribution to private households is also arranged from here. A team of Ukrainian drivers already makes trips to different towns with goods and will evacuate people out of the country via Ubl’a.
Many people stay in Ukraine to contribute and build up a supply system for cut-off places in the Carpathian Mountains and in the hinterland.
The mountains provide shelter for people who fled the devastated areas in eastern and central Ukraine. Those who have no contacts in western Ukraine or the EU states are being housed in emergency camps in schools, hostels and homes. These currently have no access to humanitarian goods and lack storage space. We went to Ukraine and visited places that need to be supplied by the buses and met with people who will be driving the Exit Buses. We will support them with providing transportation vehicles and setting up a structure of evacuation and donation logistics.
To do so, we will set up small warehouses in Ukraine so that the buses do not have to return to Slovakia every day to load. Also, we will arrange the supplies of donations from Germany (or other countries) to be organized in the central warehouse in Ubl’a. We then use lists of needs to target specific locations in Ukraine with donations.
Needs and donations
In general, there is a lack of medical care and medicine for first aid. Hygiene products are also urgently needed. In the smaller border crossings such as Hrebenne and Kroscienko in Poland, canned, dried, and baby food is needed. At train stations and smaller border crossings, some warm clothes and children’s clothes are needed.
Private taxi rides, especially for BIPoC are wanted and needed at the train stations and the Medyka hotspot in Poland. Many times, gas station are empty and it is recommended to bring fuel. Any entries to Ukraine are exclusively allowed for cargo transports with confirmation from organizations.
For our new project in Ubl’a, Slovakia, there is elementary support. We are searching for people who can support in logistics and help in the long term with the development of the project structure. Also, donations of vehicles and large transports with contents consisting of non-food-items (medical supplies, etc.) and dried and canned food is welcome.
In any case we recommend you to get in contact with local organizations before donating or even starting a trip by yourself. We can arrange contact and networks on request. Contact us: firstname.lastname@example.org