Romania is second only to Poland in the number of Ukrainian refugees who have crossed its border.
More than 740,000 refugees have fled to Romania, but officials fear many more will come.
Authorities told Insider that Romania is prepared to accept as many as 300,000 refugees in a single day.
BUCHAREST, Romania — Russia is on the back foot, its attempted two-day regime change operation in Ukraine turned into a grinding, two-month war in the face of fierce local resistance. Instead of conquering Kyiv, Russian President Vladimir Putin is publicly determined to consolidate Moscow's control over the Donbas region. But in neighboring Romania, where more than 740,000 Ukrainians have already fled, the authorities believe that the worst may be yet to come.
"We are still preparing for a larger wave to come," Madalina Turza, an aide to Romania's prime minister and coordinator of the country's humanitarian assistance efforts, said in an interview at her office in Victoria Palace. "The information coming both from media and institutional channels is that Ukraine is still under attack and that Putin is pushing very hard to get Odesa. And Odesa is very close to Romania."
Even just the threat that Russian forces might advance on Odesa, a Black Sea port city with a pre-war population of nearly 1 million people, sent thousands of residents fleeing for the border. The Romanian coastal resort town of Neptun, for example, is now host to hundreds of children from a Jewish orphanage that decided to evacuate last month.
To date, only Poland has accepted more Ukrainian refugees than Romania. But a concerted Russian effort to take Odesa — or a renewed push for Kyiv — would make the current flow of refugees seem like a mere trickle.
"We are prepared for an influx of 300,000 refugees — in a day," Turza said, with health officials telling Insider they are also prepared to accept thousands of war casualties.
It's not just mere proximity that could lead a future wave of refugees to Romania. For one, it is less of a hassle to enter the country than it is to cross into Poland. The overwhelming majority of Ukrainians have entered as tourists, spared the long lines sometimes seen at the border with other neighboring countries where they are required to register as displaced.
Why Ukrainians are looking to Romania
Yuliya Yurchenko is currently living with her parents in Vinnytsia, Ukraine, about 150 miles southwest of Kyiv. "We have a plan of what we're going to do if things kick-off, we have a couple of cars — me and two other groups of friends — and we would just drive to the Romanian border, depending on where things will be coming from, obviously," she told Insider.
"Mainly because the checkpoints there are much faster to get through," Yurchenko explained, a fact that matters when traveling with a frail parent. "The queues are smaller. It's just quicker."
Turza said that's not a happy accident but a conscious decision by Romania to make life easier for those fleeing a war that has killed more than 2,000 civilians, according to the United Nations, and injured more than 2,800.
"We felt that it's kind of inhuman to keep them with children in their arms, with everything going crazy, to keep them at the border," she said.
There is a bureaucratic cost to the policy. Ukrainians who stay in Romania must later apply for asylum or register as displaced persons; in Poland, by contrast, this process takes place at the point of entry. That means some effort must be made to find and register them later, and it may be more difficult for Bucharest to receive compensation from Europe for its humanitarian assistance.
But Turza said that was a cost worth paying. Romanians, too, have experienced communism and Russian occupation, which is to say that the plight of Ukrainians is not alien, sympathy not difficult to muster.
"Imagine that one day your neighbor, a bomb goes through their house and smashes their family. It's very close to you. It's not just something you see on TV," she said.
Romanian authorities insist they can handle a surge in refugees and that they are willing to do so. Ukrainians are provided the same access to free health care as citizens, with the government also providing short-term housing — via hotels and Romanians volunteering space in their homes — as well as education and job placement.
Human trafficking and the border
Romania is one of the leading source countries for trafficked people across Europe. But Turza, who also heads the government department charged with addressing human trafficking, said she is confident the government support for refugees will prevent Ukrainians— mostly women and children — from being manipulated into the sex trade or other forms of exploitation abroad.
At the border, she said, police were trained to spot signs of trafficking and ensure that children were arriving with adults who actually had an established connection to them. More than 100,000 Ukrainian children were orphaned prior to the war, and in one week this month more than 500 kids crossed into Romania without a parent.
Turza says no instances of trafficking were detected.
Iana Matei, a founder of the anti-trafficking organization Reaching Out Romania, which runs the country's only shelter for women who were coerced into joining the sex trade, told Insider that's narrowly true: there were no confirmed reports of trafficking victims among those. And she critiqued stories in international media suggesting that traffickers were prowling for victims at the border itself, saying it was for some nonprofits "a shameful way to fundraise."
The problem is real, though — Romania is a top source country for trafficked people across Europe. It's just that, she explains, for refugees, "what I found up until now is that they're recruited from Ukraine." For them, like most refugees, Romania is just a stop along the way to their ultimate destination.
One woman encountered by volunteers, who Matei suspects was targeted on social media, was "saying that she wants to end up in the United States, but only through Mexico — that didn't make any sense. And we couldn't convince her because she kept saying that there is an organization in Mexico that will organize the transportation for her and her daughter. She was 35 years old. The daughter was 14 years old. Perfect, both of them, for the traffickers," she said.
It's cases like that, Matei said, that slip through the cracks. Authorities simply do not spend enough time with each refugee to spot all the tell-tale signs of someone who has been misled or manipulated. Instead of a snap judgment from the border police, she would like to see any suspected cases — when there's even a hint of a story not adding up — referred for further screening by nonprofits.
"We don't have that," Matei said. "I went there and I told them we need that. They didn't put it together."
Refugees with disabilities
Turza acknowledged that, despite the lack of confirmed cases by the authorities, trafficking remains a concern.
"It's a common European understanding about the exploitation of Ukrainian refugees," with continent-wide measures to prevent it. "You have to have the demand in order to have the offer," she argued.
An even greater concern for Turza is that Romanians will grow fatigued and resentful of the services provided to refugees. Although relatively small here, far-right demagogues could, for example, exploit the fact that Romania does not have enough public housing for Romanian citizens who need it, much less, in their view, than Ukrainians.
She's also concerned that a future wave of refugees could include populations with even greater needs, beyond what Romania is capable of providing.
"I am very concerned about vulnerable groups — about persons with disability," Turza said, particularly as the mother of a child with down syndrome who, before entering government in 2019, was known nationally as a disability rights campaigner. "I know the system very well," she said, "and I'm afraid that in the case of a scenario with thousands of persons with disabilities, from the Ukrainian institutions coming into Romania, we won't be able to ensure dignifying protection here."
It's possible that the weaknesses in Romania exposed by the influx of needy people will spur change that benefits all who reside there. It's also possible that the burden of hosting tens of thousands of non-citizens will require some sacrifices.
For now, at least, officials here are adamant that they remain committed to helping their neighbors in their time of need.
"I think we need to be humans, first of all," Turza said. "At the end of the day, history is not written with money, but it's written with values."
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