MOSCOW — Russia is struggling with a flood of refugees who already number half a million from the fighting in eastern Ukraine, and many appear increasingly likely to stay, officials and activists said.
Widely viewed by the West as having fomented the conflict by providing support to pro-Russian separatists – a charge Moscow denies – Russia now faces the growing challenge of caring for the refugees.
"Since April 1, over 515,000 people have arrived from southeastern Ukraine," the head of Russia's migration service (FMS) Konstantin Romodanovsky said this week.
The influx has become a burden for southern Russian regions that border Ukraine, in particular Rostov, and Moscow is now trying to address the situation of caring for them at the federal level.
Russian authorities have organised some 400 refugee camps to offer temporary accommodation, and so far running the facilities has been up to the local authorities, stretching their capacities to the limit.
Since June 4, more than 220,000 refugees have crossed the border from Ukraine to the Rostov region, and currently the flow continues at about 2,000 people per day, Governor Vassily Golubev said on Tuesday.
"Rostov and other frontline regions are working at maximum capacity," said Ella Pamfilova, who heads President Vladimir Putin's human rights council. "They do everything possible – both the authorities and the volunteers... but the problems will only get worse," she said.
"There is growing fatigue, and when winter arrives everything will be much more difficult," she said, adding that the biggest problem was uncertainty.
'They lived through shock'
The Russian government said on Tuesday it would step up its contribution to support refugees in border areas, taking the total amount to nearly five billion rubles ($141 million, 104 million euros).
"They lived through a shock, many of them through tragedy, losing their loved ones. In Russia they are looking for protection and support," Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said at a government meeting to discuss the issue.
"It is our task to give them our utmost attention and necessary help."
Romodanovsky said that over 80 per cent of the refugees remain in border areas, but the government has begun to move some camps to other areas, particularly in the centre of the country, with the hope that this may help the refugees if they choose to settle in Russia.
"The flow of refugees is not abating. Many want to return to their homes when the conflict ends, but increasingly these families want closure, and intend to stay in Russia," said Pamfilova.
More than 144,000 have turned to Russian authorities for special refugee status, and of those, 38,000 people have demanded asylum, recent FMS figures show.
The Russian government ordered late on Tuesday simplified measures for reviewing requests for refugee status.— AFP