Ukraine refugee crisis calls for 'global movement' to end forced migration

Photo: Manuel Ortíz (Global Exchange)

Editor's note: More than 3.8 million Ukrainians have already fled their country in the wake of the Russian invasion, now in its third week. Many are heading west toward the city of Lviv, along the Polish border. From there, they cross to the west, towards Europe, fleeing a war that is intensifying and which, for now, does not seem to have a clear end. Photojournalist Manuel Ortiz Escámez traveled to the Ukrainian city of Lviv, near the Polish border, to document the flow of refugees, and says the crisis calls for a global movement to support them and the more than 84 million displaced people worldwide. He spoke to the contributing editor of Ethnic Media ServicesPeter Schurmann.

What surprised you most about your visit to Poland and Ukraine?

Even before I came here, I knew I would see a lot of suffering, but I didn't expect to see the degree of solidarity that I have seen. In Ukraine, people are creating support networks, normal people. They bring medicine and food, they try to bring food to the people at the front. There is unity. In Lviv, I saw some people selling flowers. I also saw music... A group of people were singing and it was like a small festival in a park. During the day, Lviv was very quiet. You saw people walking, but they do it quietly. At night, music breaks that silence. In the midst of the horrors of this war, it's simple, human acts that happen.

Has your view of the war changed during your trip?

In Europe, in the United States and in Latin America, I see a growing stigmatization of Russians. But from here it is clear that Ukrainians and Russians share a deep bond. I haven't heard a single refugee say "damn Russians" or "Russian People are shit." It saddens me to see the world cancel Russian concerts, blaming Russian artists. That's a big mistake, and it's not happening here. I worry that if we keep blaming the Russian people, they will eventually line up in support of Putin.

Is there a person you met or a moment that stands out in your memory?

Many people, for example the family hugging each other at the bus station. Sometimes, as a photographer, you can't cry with the people you work with. And yet you know that - because of the men in power - these people have to be separated. (Men between 18 and 60 years old have to stay in Ukraine). So, who knows, they may never see each other again. It is terrible to witness that moment of separation. I talked to the young man and he told me that "only the weak are violent". I was very touched by that family.

Photo: Manuel Ortíz (Global Exchange)

Can you describe your stay in Lviv?

Getting to the city is very difficult. You can spend up to 4 or 6 hours at the border, waiting at checkpoints. You can see that the soldiers are nervous and that makes you nervous. In the city there is a lot of traffic, a lot of people walking in different directions. Lviv is like going to the past. Poland is a very European country, but when you cross the border and arrive in Lviv it's like going into an old movie. People dress very differently, they walk slower. It's like stepping into the past. The trains are old, full of people coming from different parts of the country. Some are crying, others are silent. You see many women with suitcases. Some try to cross the train tracks with their arms loaded with bags, children and even pets. I saw many cats and dogs. I even saw a parrot in a box. I could hear it squawking.

How is the atmosphere in Poland now?

I feel it has changed since I arrived just a week ago. When I arrived, Poles were expressing support for the Ukrainians and their situation. A week later, many of the people I talk to say they feel they have to prepare for a possible war. At first they thought the conflict would not reach them, and now they feel they may be next. I don't know if Poland will enter the war, but people here seem to be mentally preparing for that possibility. One of my contacts was in Lviv. On my last day in the city, there was an attack on a military base near the Polish border. My contact had initially planned to keep her family in Poland. When I spoke to her again, she was preparing to move further west. Things have changed here in a short time.

Migration is one of the central themes of your work. What lessons do you draw from your time in Ukraine?

Most of the migrants I have photographed over the years do not want to leave home, or want to return. There are forces in power - usually white men - that are responsible for the migration of millions of people around the world. And the fact that millions are unwillingly displaced...we are doing something very wrong. Poland will not and cannot be the only country supporting refugees from Ukraine. Germany is doing what it can, but it will have to be a global movement, which means it's a time to discuss not only the Ukrainians, but the mass migration of Hondurans, Mexicans, Colombians, Syrians. It is a time to rethink what we can do to stop the forced migration of tens of millions and end their suffering.

Any final thoughts on your visit that you can share?

Crossing the border with Ukraine is, as I said, a long process. You stand in a long queue and you can't take pictures. So I took out my diary and made some notes. The soldiers instructed me to stop doing even this. "There are photos that I only have in my memory," I wrote, "which are perhaps the most important and emotional moments. The moments of saying goodbye, the tears and the hugs and kisses along the border. The pain is in the air, you can smell it, you can see it on the faces of the families. People walk, carry babies in their arms, pull heavy suitcases with wheels that sometimes don't work because the bags are too old. They are overwhelmed. There is no image that can show the feeling at this moment. The most emotional images are only in the memory, something that not even the best photo can convey."

Photo: Manuel Ortíz (Global Exchange)

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