MEXICO CITY — On a dusty field east of Mexico’s sprawling capital, some 500 Ukrainian refugees wait in large tents under the scorching sun for the US government to tell them they can come.
The camp has only been open for a week and 50 to 100 people arrive every day. Some have already made it to the US border in Tijuana where they were told they would no longer be allowed in. Others arrived at airports in Mexico City or Cancun, wherever they could find a ticket from Europe.
“We are asking the US government to process faster,” said Anastasiya Polo, co-founder of United with Ukraine, a nongovernmental organization, which worked with the Mexican government to establish the camp. She said that after a week, none of the refugees there “are even close to the end of the program”.
The program, Uniting for Ukraine, was announced by the US government on April 21. Four days later, Ukrainians showing up at the US-Mexico border were no longer exempt from a pandemic-related rule that was used to quickly deport migrants without opportunity. applying for asylum for two years.
Instead, they should apply from Europe or other countries like Mexico. To be eligible, people must have been in Ukraine by February 11; have a sponsor, which can be a family or an organization; meet vaccination and other public health requirements; and pass background checks.
Polo said he was told by US government officials it should take a week to process people, but it looked like it was just getting started. Some earlycomers had received emails from the US government acknowledging receipt of their documents and documents from their sponsors, but she had heard that no sponsors had yet been approved.
“These people cannot stay in this camp because it is temporary,” Polo said. More than 100 of the camp residents are children.
Nearly 5.5 million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded its smaller neighbor on February 24, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
Giorgi Mikaberidze, 19, is among those waiting. He arrived in Tijuana on April 25 and found the US border closed. He complained that the US government had given so little notice because many people like him were already in transit. It has gone from a few meters from the United States to some 600 miles (966 kilometers) now.
When the US government announced in late March that it would accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees, hundreds entered Mexico daily as tourists in Mexico City or Cancun and flew to Tijuana to wait a few days – possibly hours. only – before being admitted. the United States at a San Diego border crossing on humanitarian parole. Appointments at US consulates in Europe were infrequent and refugee resettlement takes time, making Mexico the best option.
Travel through Mexico was diverted, but a group of volunteers, largely from Slavic churches in the western United States, met the refugees at Tijuana airport and transported them to a recovery center. recreation that the city of Tijuana has made available to several thousand people. wait . A two- to four-day wait was finally reduced to a few hours when US border inspectors smuggled in Ukrainians.
This special treatment ended the day Mikaberidze arrived in Tijuana.
“We want to go to America because (we are) already here, some don’t even have the money to go back,” he said.
Mikaberidze was visiting relatives in Georgia, southern Ukraine, when the Russian invasion happened and was unable to return. His mother remains in their village near Kharkhov in eastern Ukraine, afraid to leave her home because Russian troops fire indiscriminately at cars driving through the area, he said.
“She said it was a very dangerous situation,” said Mikaberidze, who traveled alone to Mexico.
The Mexico City camp provides a safe place to wait. It was erected inside a large sports complex, so Ukrainians could be seen pushing strollers with children along sidewalks, playing football and volleyball, and even swimming.
However, the refugees have been warned that as long as they are free to leave the compound, no one is responsible for their safety. Iztapalapa, the most populated district of the capital, is also one of the most dangerous.
The Mexican government provided security for the camp with about 50 officers, Polo said. The Navy had also set up a mobile kitchen to provide meals.
She said they felt safe inside the camp, but were asking the government for the possibility of moving the camp to a safer area.
Mykhailo Pasternak and his partner Maziana Hzyhozyshyn were waiting at the entrance to the complex on Monday afternoon. Both suffering from apparent head colds, they planned to move into a hotel for a day or two to try to sleep and recuperate before returning to camp.
Pasternak had left the United States to help Hzyhozyshyn enter. The two had spent several days in Tijuana before flying to Mexico City and arriving at camp on Sunday.
The couple stood out on the streets of Iztapalapa and seemed to wither under the relentless sun. The couple had known each other for six years.
“It’s my love,” Pasternak said.
AP writer Elliot Spagat in San Diego contributed to this report.