March 29, 2023

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PRZEMYSL, Poland — This Polish city on the Ukrainian border has been witnessing a surprising phenomenon — thousands of Ukrainian refugees heading back 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 crossed back on Monday. Over 370,000 are estimated to have returned since Russia’s invasion began on February 24.

The reasons for the returns are varied. Some refugees have run out of money, or could not find or afford accommodation outside refugee camps. In Poland in particular, which has hosted around 2.3 million Ukrainians, delays in receiving subsistence funds from the government led some to decide to head home. 

At the Przemyśl train station, long lines form in front of trains headed for the cities of Lviv, Kyiv and Odesa, which returned to Ukraine empty at the beginning of the invasion. 

“It’s always better at home,” said Lilia Shuba, 42, a teacher from Vynohradiv in western Ukraine, waiting in line for the train to Lviv. “We left a week ago, and now we are going back. My husband volunteered for the army and there’s nobody in our house.” 

She and her 3-year-old son Oleksandr spent 13 hours on the Hungarian border on their way out of Ukraine. 

“I left to gather my strength and now we will go back to wait out the end of the war in Ukraine,” she said.

For weeks, Przemyśl has been Europe’s biggest hub for Ukrainians fleeing their homeland and thousands of new refugees still arrive every day.

Almost every shop window bears a Ukrainian flag, and banners and billboards welcoming Ukrainians are seen all over the medieval Polish city, which was a popular tourist destination before the pandemic.

At the Przemyśl station, those fleeing and those returning now cross paths for a few hours every day and exchange experiences. 

“We are aware of reported returns to Ukraine and we respect people’s choice,” said Victoria Andrievska, a spokesperson for UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency.

“They are in a better position to assess their personal situation. However, UNHCR is not assisting people to return at the moment,” she said. 

International volunteers from Western European countries such as the U.K. and Spain can be seen all over the train station, helping people who arrive get a hot meal, travel tickets, clothing, toys for their children and even vaccines for their pets. The volunteers also report refugees heading back in significant numbers.

“We have seen several thousand going back through Przemyśl every day. As the biggest crossing point in Europe, we likely see most of the people going back,” said Ada Wordsworth, 23, who interrupted her master’s degree in Slavonic studies at the University of Oxford to help with the crisis and has been assisting with Russian translation for three weeks. 

“I was completely surprised when I saw it, it was shocking. The first family I met that was going back wanted to go to Kharkiv,” she recalled, referring to the Ukrainian city that has been heavily bombarded by Russian forces. 

In the beginning, only one or two people would go back, usually to retrieve pets or family members after first leaving the country on their own. 

“Western media want to see Ukraine as this gray, dark, depressing post-Soviet space that nobody would want to go back to, but actually everyone I have spoken to has said they want to return as soon as they possibly can,” Wordsworth said. 

“Generally it is people who have not been able to find work, haven’t been able to find a place to live. Others have been scammed and lost a lot of money in Poland,” she said. 

She and other volunteers say the EU needs to recognize that most Ukrainian refugees want to stay in Poland or Moldova, where the language and surroundings are more similar to their own, and that funds should be redirected there from the rest of the bloc. 

“The current trend of returns messes with the perception in the West that their countries are the be-all-end-all and that 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 fit with historic patterns.

“Even during peacetime migrations, a number of people decide to return even when they intended to stay, because the migration experience is not what they expected it to be,” he said.

“The emotional needs of some people may be stronger than the fear of war. They might interpret news from Ukraine in a way that strengthens their resolve to come back,” said Stola. “The emotional cost of separation under dramatic conditions may appear greater than the fear of possibly being affected by Russian shelling.” 

Those who left initially “could decide that it’s better for them to stay with family and friends and people you love rather than being away and waking up every day worried about what happened to their husbands, parents and others they left behind in Ukraine,” he said.

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