As millions of Ukrainians flee the Russian invasion, hundreds return home

BUDAPEST, Hungary – Hundreds of people fleeing the war in neighboring Ukraine gathered on Platform 10 at the Budapest Nyugaty railway station in the Hungarian capital on the first Sunday of April.

But more than 200 passengers, who were waiting for the train at 7:23 am, were traveling no further than Ukraine, and were returning home.

Yulia Kalinina, who was traveling with her sister to meet with her husbands, admitted that it was not easy.

“I’m afraid,” said Kalinina, 39, from Kyiv. “But I really want to go home. I want to see my husband. I’d rather be afraid of him than be afraid of a friend here. ”

Ukrainian men between the ages of 18 and 60 are banned from leaving the country if they are needed for war.

While the war in Ukraine lasts for the sixth week, Kalinin and her sister are among the refugees who are tired of separating from their families and cannot find opportunities in Europe, and are beginning to return to Ukraine.

The State Border Guard Service of Ukraine reported that on Sunday alone more than 22,000 Ukrainians crossed the border back into the country against 33,000 who left. Since the start of the war on February 24, more than 4 million people have left Ukraine.

Despite the fact that refugees are leaving not only Hungary – the Polish Border Guard has reported more than 421,000 border crossings with Ukraine since the start of the war – aid officials say the problems Ukrainians face are particularly acute in Hungary. where language is difficult to learn, inflation is rising rapidly, and employment opportunities are few.

“For women and children, no one can guarantee their safety.”

Natalia Chury, volunteer translator

And some aid workers say that while Hungary’s harsh Prime Minister Viktor Orban has softened his anti-immigration rhetoric, he has provided small state aid to some 400,000 Ukrainians who have arrived in the country, leaving volunteers and NGOs to put the system together. refugee support.

Humanitarian workers and volunteers say they began seeing hundreds of refugees in late March, mostly women and children trying to return to Ukraine. Ukrainian-speaking volunteers at Budapest Nyugaty railway station say more and more people are arriving at the station every day in search of help to buy a ticket back to Ukraine, knowing they may have nothing to return to.

While some Ukrainians said they would rather reunite with family and live in an underground bunker than continue to seek food and shelter every day, others ran out of money and felt they had nowhere else to go. And some of them, still traumatized by the escape before their deaths, were returning home to bring back elderly relatives who had been unable to leave in the initial rush with the evacuation.

38-year-old Tatiana Samsonova waved goodbye to her older sister, who boarded the train to return to Lviv for her 70-year-old mother, who could not travel on her own.

Along the platform at Nyugaty train station in Budapest, a sign shows information for Ukrainians.
Along the platform at Nyugaty train station in Budapest, a sign shows information for Ukrainians. Vladimir Zhivoinovich for NBC News

Samsonova said she knows what risks her sisters face. When Samsonova left Ukraine in March with children aged 4 and 10, she said Russian snipers shot at their car. Their neighbors, who were driving in front, were hit by a rocket, setting fire to the car. The shelling was constant, and Samsonov, diving under the wheel for protection, could not stop to help them.

“My sister is brave to return,” said Samsonova, who planned to wait in Budapest with the children. “I just want her to come back here well.”

Refugee and migration experts say refugees often return home during conflict, but this is often a sign of a weak humanitarian and official response from the government.

“This is very worrying because Ukraine is still a country in conflict,” said Emily Venturi, who specializes in refugees and migration at London’s Chatham House think tank. “It is also a red flag for European governments to make sure that the humanitarian response meets the needs of Ukrainians.”

Experts also say the refugees may be encouraged by Ukraine’s recent victories on the battlefield, which have pushed Russian troops into parts of the country, leading to a sense of stability. It is unclear what proportion of refugees returning to Ukraine plan to stay temporarily to pick up things or loved ones, or plan to stay in the country for a long time.

Alexander Bates, a professor of forced migration and international relations at Oxford University, said that although the trajectory of the war is uncertain, refugees can interpret news of the conflict in a way that strengthens their determination to return home.

“People left quickly, women and children left so many family members, including men. They have left property, left houses, and many will continue to perceive their lives and future as in Ukraine, ”Bates said.

Natalia Chury, who volunteered as a translator at Budapest’s railway station when the war broke out, said the refugees were facing huge questions.

“No one can guarantee the safety of women and children. And no one can guarantee that they will actually have their relatives and their homes, where they can return, ”she said. “It’s a risky situation, and so far it’s a new trend that people are coming back in large numbers.”

In response to what has become the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, in March the European Union gave Ukrainians the right to live and work within the bloc for up to three years. But even for those who can find work, many women who left Ukraine with children cannot find childcare.

The 30-year-old Marina, who asked not to use her last name because she was worried about her safety, left Kyiv in early March with her 7-year-old and 18-month-old sons, having enough money to rent a small apartment in Budapest for a month.

She was able to find a job as a waitress, but there was no one to look after the children while she was at work. She refused to work and came to the station to look for information on how to cross the border with Ukraine.

People line up to buy tickets at Nyugati station on Friday.
People line up to buy tickets at Nyugati station on Friday. Vladimir Zhivoinovich for NBC News

“It doesn’t work,” she said. “How do I raise two children without help? I want to come back right now. “

Many refugees simply seek comfort and habit at home, even when they travel into the unknown.

On Sunday, 32-year-old Anna Lutsenko was waiting at Budapest train station to begin what could be a week-long trip back to the city of Odessa in southeastern Ukraine. Lutsenko said she had seen videos on social networks showing the peaceful port of the Black Sea city.

“It’s quiet there now,” she said as she boarded the train with the suitcase she left home with just a few weeks ago. “We want to live in our city.”

When the train departed, Russia announced that it had launched a missile strike on an Odessa oil facility, the first major attack on the city since the start of the war.

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