- Over 430,000 Ukrainian refugees passed through Moldova, a country of 3 million people.
- Most of the refugees who remained are tenants or housed by Moldovan families.
- Insider visited the country to see how it is handling the influx.
CHISINAU, Moldova — Before Russia began to invade Ukraine, UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, had exactly one person working in Moldova, the country now hosting more than Ukrainians displaced per capita than any other.
“Everything happened so fast that, as very often happens in an emergency, we were not prepared,” Francesca Bonelli, UNHCR’s head of operations in Moldova, said in an interview in her makeshift office. of the Soviet-era Jolly Alon Hotel.
Since February 24, more than 430,000 people have entered Moldova from Ukraine. Nearly 100,000 remained, including some 3,500 third-country nationals, mainly from China and Azerbaijan. This has placed a huge burden on a small country of just 3 million people with a gross domestic product in 2021 of less than $12 billion – the rough equivalent of three months’ economic output in Bakersfield, California.
In 2020, for comparison, only 86 people applied for asylum in Moldova.
Most passed through the southern town of Palanca, less than an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian port city of Odessa, where over the weekend Russian missiles hit residential buildings, killing eight people, including a mother and her newborn daughter.
“I remember one of the first days I was in Palanca, talking with the border police. They said a few people asked them, ‘Are we safe here? There’s no shelling ?’ And that really touched me,” Bonelli said. It was, she realized, the first time that these people – mostly women and children – had not been threatened by Russian bombs.
If they did not go further than Moldova, it is partly because they remain optimistic. In 25 years of working with refugee populations, “this is the first time that I have felt such a strong desire to return home as soon as possible,” said Bonelli. “Of course, every refugee wants to go home, but here you can really feel it, probably because the war is so fresh and so close.”
Today, UNHCR in Moldova employs around 80 people. Opposite the Chisinau Congress Center, some of them are now helping to register refugees for a cash assistance program. One weekday morning, a few hundred refugees who had already applied for the aid online — $120 a month per person, funded by Catholic Relief Services — were waiting to complete their in-person interviews.
Yasemin Sener, UNHCR’s deputy field officer, said the intention of the program “is to prevent people from opting for negative coping strategies”, such as resorting to sex work or begging for their children. in the streets. UNHCR is trying to identify particularly vulnerable people during the registration process to link them to other assistance programmes, she added.
About 2,000 people a day were registered for the refugee cash assistance, which was launched in mid-March by UNHCR, with 24,000 people already registered.
But the good intentions were undermined by predictable, albeit frustrating, implementation issues.
The number of people registered for cash assistance indicates that three quarters of the refugee population have not registered. Some may not need it, but others may not know it exists or have time to spend half a day waiting in line when they are already busy trying to work or take care of their children. Others probably only tried to be thwarted by technical bottlenecks; during the first days of the initiative, the computer system used to register people kept crashing.
Refugees who passed the application process also reported long delays. After signing up, some received their debit card only to wait over a month for money to be added to their account.
It was the Moldovans who, in the early days of the war and since, led the effort to help their neighbors, being quicker and more flexible than international organizations.
For the refugee cash program to even be legal, for example, Moldova’s parliament had to convene quickly and pass a law allowing the distribution of debit cards to people who might not have identification ( UNHCR collects biometric data to prevent anyone from collecting cash twice).
The Interior Ministry has also launched a unique public-private partnership – not quite a government agency, not quite a non-profit organization – called Moldova for Peace which, with the help of a website which did not plant, allowed refugees to voice their needs and match with the appropriate donations.
Bonelli readily admits that UNHCR had to catch up. She also does not hesitate to credit the Moldovans. “I am very impressed by the government, by civil society, by the volunteers – every corner here in Moldova is committed to doing its best not only to welcome the refugees, but to improve the situation,” she said. declared.
Moldova is stepping up to the plate, at a price
Cristina Sirbu, who helped launch Moldova for Peace, said solidarity and resilience will be more difficult in the weeks to come. Many refugees still operate under the assumption that the war will end soon, a fact that has made a difficult situation more tolerable but has also prevented some from accepting their new life. Many refugees say they are in Moldova precisely because it will be that much easier for them to return to where they fled.
“Psychologically, they arrive here and they are frozen,” Sirbu said over lunch at a cafe in Chisinau. “But they keep being frozen for a while – until they start to realize that it’s probably not a temporary fix,” she said. When the realization finally kicks in, the once “temporary” conditions – living in a shelter or with another person, with little privacy – can quickly become intolerable. That, she says, could be a “breaking point.”
Not just among refugees. Moldovans recoil from being called a “poor” nation, but are currently being asked to provide far more energy and charity to help war victims than most other wealthier European countries.
Marina Soloviova, an economist at the Expert-Grup think tank in Chisinau, said it would likely cost Moldova up to $378 million a year to take in as many refugees as it does today, or about 3% of the country’s GDP. This, at a time when the government needs to increase subsidies to its poorest residents in response to soaring inflation.
The country is also expected to see zero economic growth this year – “the optimistic forecast”, Soloviova said.
Outside the European Union and barred from joining NATO, tiny Moldova has far exceeded its weight. So far, the European Parliament has intervened to provide about $162 million in aid for his troubles, 80% in the form of loans.
But money is not the main concern for most Moldovans. It’s something to settle later.
For the moment, at least, the war next door has made it possible to unite a country, often divided since independence between partisans and anti-Europeans, around a singular objective. The hope, as the country applies for EU membership, is that they will one day be reimbursed.
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