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More than half a million have fled Ukraine, with many waiting for days at border crossings

The mass exodus of refugees from Ukraine to the eastern edge of the European Union showed no signs of stopping Monday as people continued to flee Russia’s burgeoning war, with the UN estimating that more than half a million people have already escaped.

EU countries to grant Ukrainian refugees the right to stay and work for three years

The mass exodus of refugees from Ukraine to the eastern edge of the European Union showed no signs of stopping Monday as people fled Russia's burgeoning war, with the UN estimating that more than half a million people have already escaped.

EU officials have said the war could displace seven million people.

"More than 500,000 refugees have now fled from Ukraine into neighbouring countries," UN refugee chief Filippo Grandi said in a tweet.

Shabia Mantoo, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) spokesperson, said the latest and still growing count had 281,000 in Poland, more than 84,500 in Hungary, about 36,400 in Moldova, over 32,500 in Romania and about 30,000 in Slovakia. The rest were scattered in unidentified other countries, she said.

Long lines of cars and buses were backed up at checkpoints at the borders of Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and non-EU member Moldova. Others crossed the borders on foot, dragging their possessions away from the war and into the security of the EU.

Long lines in freezing conditions

Poland sought to ease passage into the EU Monday for around quarter of a million Ukrainians waiting at European border crossings in freezing conditions.

"The queues are huge," said Polish prime minister's chief of staff Michal Dworczyk. He said police were allowing in people without documents and that the government was talking with Ukrainian counterparts about simplifying procedures.

"If we count the functioning border points there are certainly over a quarter of a million people at the borders," he said.

WATCH | Masses flee Ukraine as invasion presses on: 

Over 400,000 people flee war in Ukraine

5 months ago
Duration 4:32
More than 400,000 people in Ukraine have fled Russia's invasion, with many crossing into Poland without their husbands and fathers who stayed behind to fight.

Another Polish official said Ukrainian border guards were slowing the flow of people when they sought to separate out men of fighting age.

The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv tweeted that Ukrainian border guards were waiving exit screening procedures for women and children on Monday to reduce wait times as snow began to fall.

In Romania, volunteers were trying to provide raincoats in snowy conditions.

Romanian Interior Minister Lucian Bode said that, with people queuing 20 to 30 hours on the Ukrainian side to get into Romania, it was crucial to agree on how to process their paperwork to shorten waiting times on the EU side as well.

EU to grant Ukrainian refugees right to stay, work

The European Union is preparing to grant Ukrainians who flee the war the right to stay and work in the 27-nation bloc for up to three years.

European ministers will meet again on Thursday to agree on details.

So far, the Canadian government has said it will expedite immigration applications for Ukrainians attempting to escape the conflict.

Defence Minister Anita Anand said Friday Canadian officials are "doing whatever we can to assist" Ukrainian refugees who are fleeing Russian violence.

"We have approximately 150 Canadian Armed Forces members on standby in Poland, ready to assist," Anand said.

Ukrainian refugees are seen at the temporary refugee centre in a local primary school at Tiszabecs in eastern Hungary on Monday. (Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images)

Ontario Premier Doug Ford said Friday the province would open its arms to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion. He said their skills will be welcome in a province with a pressing labour shortage he said is hurting the economy. 

Ford said he wants the federal government to do everything it can to make it easier for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression to settle in Ontario.

"We need to speed things up, expedite people fleeing the tyranny that Russia has put on Ukraine," he said. "It's absolutely disgusting and the rest of the world has to step up and Ontario is going to be at the front of the line welcoming people here."

Overrun border towns

Crowds of people and cars have started to clog border towns such as Medyka, as refugees wait to be picked up.

The mayor of Przemysl, Wojciech Bakun, appealed to Polish volunteers to stop showing up with cars to offer transport for newly arrived groups, saying traffic was becoming unmanageable.

As officials searched for ways to unclog bottlenecks, Ukrainians living in the EU anxiously waited at border crossings to greet family members.

"We were waiting here three days and they were on the road for over four days," said Veronika Sahlikova Kufelt, who travelled from Germany to meet her nieces and grandmother at the Ubla crossing in Slovakia.

At Medyka, Poland's busiest border crossing, officials loaded new arrivals into tour buses before ferrying them to a reception centre in the nearby town of Przemysl where friends, relatives and volunteers waited to meet them. 

Some new arrivals huddled around fires at the reception centre as they waited to leave in the snowy, cold weather.

A woman fleeing Russian invasion of Ukraine sits by a fire to stay warm at a temporary camp in Przemysl, Poland, on Monday. (Yara Nardi/Reuters)

"I took a train from Kyiv to Lviv to a point where the taxi put us," one Ukrainian woman said. "I walked the last 50 kilometres."

Across central Europe, authorities set up makeshift reception centres in tents where people could get medical aid and process asylum papers, while thousands of volunteers have driven to the borders with donations of food, blankets and clothes.

In the capital of Warsaw, local authorities said residents had listed some 2,500 apartments where refugees could stay.

Foreign students and workers flee Ukraine

Several hundred refugees were gathered at a temporary reception centre in the Hungarian border village of Beregsurany, where they awaited transportation to transit hubs that could take them further into Hungary and beyond.

Many of the refugees at the reception centre in Beregsurany, as in other border areas in Eastern Europe, are from India, Nigeria and other African countries, and were working or studying in Ukraine when the war broke out.

Indian women wait for transport at the Medyka pedestrian border in Poland. Many of those fleeing are from India, Nigeria and other African countries and were working or studying in Ukraine when the war broke out. (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

Masroor Ahmed, a 22-year-old Indian medical student studying in Ternopil in western Ukraine, came with 18 other Indian students to the Hungarian border. He said they hoped to reach the capital of Budapest, where India's government has organized an evacuation flight for its citizens.

While Ternopil has not yet experienced violence in the war, he said, "it is supposed to. It might be that there is bombing next hour, next month or next year. We are not sure, that's why we left that city."

Hungary has opened its borders to all refugees fleeing Ukraine, including third-country nationals that can prove Ukrainian residency. The government has set up a "humanitarian corridor" to escort non-Ukrainian nationals from the border to airports in the city of Debrecen and the capital, Budapest.

WATCH | Yuliya Sotska describes how she and her family fled explosions in Vasylkiv:

Ukrainian-Canadian family flees explosions near Kyiv

5 months ago
Duration 7:04
Ukrainian-Canadian Yuliya Sotska describes how her family fled their home in Vasylkiv, outside Kyiv, to escape explosions and take shelter farther west. She says she's grateful to Canada and hopes for peace. 'Putin needs to be stopped,' she said.

With files from Reuters and CBC News

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