Ukraine’s Power Shortages Force Millions of Refugees Into Lengthier Exile

Kyiv’s call to its diaspora to stay abroad is forcing many to upend their lives again and turn their temporary flight into a permanent move

Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure are forcing millions of Ukrainian refugees who intended to return home to stay put, prolonging their ordeal and straining Europe’s ability to absorb one of the biggest flows of migrants in decades.

Moscow’s repeated strikes on power stations and heating equipment have caused rolling blackouts in Ukraine and deprived millions across the country of power, heating and running water amid subzero temperature. As it struggles to keep the lights on, Kyiv is now urging Ukrainian refugees to stay where they are for now.

There are nearly eight million Ukrainian refugees across Europe, many of whom had hoped to return home in the fall. They now face the prospect of a more permanent exodus, having to look for work and send their children to local schools.

And for the host countries, it means the bill is likely to rise just as the continent is facing a likely recession, uncertainties about its own energy supplies and an increase in refugee arrivals from the Middle East and elsewhere.

“I’m not afraid of the bombs, but without electricity, water and heating you can’t work or have a normal life,” said Liza Cherniakova, who fled with her partner to Berlin in March and has since lived in the small apartment of a German friend.

The couple invested their savings to open a trendy cafe in Kyiv shortly before the war started. Like many other Ukrainians stranded abroad, they had aimed to return before the winter but are now staying put indefinitely.

With power down for most of the day, Ms. Cherniakova’s parents have moved to their countryside dacha, where they use wood for heating and cooking.

“Here we have safety but I don’t see any future for us—I want to return to my business, to my life at home,” said Ms. Cherniakova, who now works at a cafe.

Since the Kremlin began its systematic campaign in October to destroy Ukraine’s energy infrastructure—a war crime under international law—over half of the country’s power generating capacity has been incapacitated along with most of the electricity distribution network, according to Kyiv, forcing authorities to impose rolling blackouts. Schools, gyms and other public buildings are being turned into shelters heated by diesel generators to prevent people freezing at home.

The rate of Russian bombardment means that another up to three million Ukrainians are likely to flee their homes this winter, said Hans Kluge, Europe regional director for the World Health Organization.

Deputy Ukrainian Prime Minister  Iryna Vereshchuk said last month that refugees across Europe should stay put for now. And Maxim Timchenko, chief executive of DTEK, Ukraine’s largest private energy company, urged Ukrainians who can afford it to emigrate if they can.

For Europe, the extra burden comes just as migrant flows from elsewhere are rebounding following a lull during the Covid-19 pandemic. Between 15,000 and 25,000 asylum seekers are now reaching Germany every month, mainly from the Middle East and Central Asia. Together with arrivals from Ukraine, this means this year has already topped the historical immigration record set by the 2015 refugee crisis.

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