By Robert Muller, Olimpiu Gheorghiu and Karol Badohal
WARSAW/PRAGUE/PALANCA, Moldova (Reuters) – Thousands more refugees from Ukraine crossed into Eastern Europe on Wednesday, where authorities are providing food, social services and school places to help people rebuild their lives away from war.
Three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there are some signs the exodus is slowing although tens of thousands of people are arriving daily in what has become Europe’s fastest growing refugee crisis since World War Two.
More than 3 million people have left Ukraine so far, data from the U.N. Refugee Agency (UNHCR) showed. The frontline states – Poland, Slovakia, Romania, Hungary and Moldova – have been providing help to drive, feed or house refugees.
In Poland, which has taken nearly 2 million people from Ukraine, authorities on Wednesday began issuing national identification numbers to the refugees so they can access social services and benefits, and more easily find jobs.
Renata Podolecka, headteacher of elementary school number 318 in Warsaw, said 21 children from Ukraine had been enrolled in grades one through seven, giving them a chance to continue their education.
“We have children who came here with nothing, only the clothes on their backs,” she said.
“So we buy them underwear, socks, shoes, a school starter kit. Besides that of course crayons, writing utensils. Books they get for free just like all of our kids.”
Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek said Polish schools had enrolled 54,000 Ukrainian children. UNICEF has said 1.4 million children have fled in total, averaging out at 73,000 each day since the invasion began.
Tatiana Semczuk from Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine signed her kids up at a Warsaw school on Wednesday. Her daughter is in eighth grade and her son in third. The children do not speak Polish and have being doing online classes from Ukraine since they arrived in Poland.
“I think going to school here is better, so they can learn some Polish, so that they feel different psychologically,” she said. “Over here there will be other kids, from Poland and from Ukraine.”
The Lauder School in Prague organised by the city’s Jewish community, is taking in several Ukrainian children and planning for more, but like many schools it faces obstacles.
“The problem is that schools run at full capacity as their funding depends on the number of pupils, and at the same time, there are strict limits for how many pupils can be in one class,” Petr Karas, the principal, said.
Czech legislators are finalising a bill to give Ukraine refugees 5,000 Czech crowns ($224) a month for up to six months, means-tested after the first payment. The law would also grant those with refugee visas the right to work.
At Poland’s border crossings the flow of people has slowed in the past few days, including at Medyka, Poland’s busiest crossing point, where local officials and Poles have worked flat out to provide food, shelter and transport.
“Everything depends on the war and the tense situation inside Ukraine,” Polish Border Guard spokesperson Anna Michalska said. “I wouldn’t say there is any pattern, this is war and it is hard to find patterns.”
Russia’s invasion has reduced some of Ukraine’s cities to rubble and thousands of civilians remain trapped under bombardment.
Russia denies targeting civilians, describing its actions as a “special military operation” to demilitarise and “denazify” Ukraine.
At the Palanca border crossing in Moldova, in the Danube delta just 50 km (31 miles) from Ukraine’s Black Sea port of Odessa, authorities and volunteers from neighbouring villages have been serving hot meals to the refugees.
“We are happy we can do good to our friends in need,” Ion, one of the volunteers, said. “Despite being the poorest country (in Europe), we have the biggest heart.”
In a large pavilion tent, usually used for summer weddings, volunteers ladled home-made sausage and rice and cabbage and potato soup into disposable containers to hand to the refugees – mostly women, children and the elderly.
“To see people in tears when they get a hot meal – seeing them so overwhelmed by our care – makes us feel useful and happy at the same time,” said Doina, a supervisor for the operation.
($1 = 22.3650 Czech crowns)
(Additional reporting by Alan Charlish and Pawel Florkiewicz in Warsaw, Jan Lopatka in Prague; Writing by Niklas Pollard. Editing by Jane Merriman)