Ukrainian refugees pour into Moldova, one of Europe's poorest and smallest countries

Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have arrived in Moldova, a small former Soviet state, since Russia's invasion of Ukraine began last week.

Wedged between Ukraine and Romania, Moldova is a country of just 2.6 million and one of Europe’s poorest nations, yet it has taken in a significant number of Ukrainians fleeing the war. As of Friday, more than 68,000 refugees of the 1 million who have fled Ukraine had arrived and stayed in Moldova, according to a government official.

Many of Ukraine’s neighbors — including Poland, Slovakia and Romania — have tried to help Ukrainians fleeing the war. But Moldova’s willingness to receive so many people, despite its small size and domestic problems, has stood out.

CNN’s Bianna Golodryga, who was born in Moldova when it was still part of the Soviet Union but was raised in Texas, praised the tiny nation in the immediate aftermath of the invasion. “Moldova (the country of my birth), has really stepped up throughout this crisis,” she tweeted.

Veaceslav Ionita, a former member of the Moldovan parliament, told Yahoo News that the country is doing everything it can to help its Ukrainian neighbors. “People are offering free transportation, accommodation, food — and everything the refugees need,” he said.

Ionita said the welcome mat has been laid out for all those fleeing Ukraine, regardless of their country of origin, including students and workers originally from Africa, Asia and Latin America. “Right now, my relatives have 30 Vietnamese students at home. Everyone is welcome in Moldova,” he said.

According to Ionita, 90 percent of the refugees are now being assisted by private companies, individuals and religious groups. The remaining 10 percent are served by public institutions. Moldovan authorities say they have established assistance centers at two border crossings with Ukraine, where those arriving are given food and temporary shelter, as well as assistance in finding more permanent accommodations.

People of all ages, many wearing warm clothes and hats and some with luggage beside them, walk around a long table set out with food.
People who fled Ukraine due to the Russian invasion in an exhibition center turned into a refugee camp in the Moldovan capital, Chisinau, on March 3. (Nikolay Doychinov / AFP via Getty Images)

However, if the flow of refugees continues to rise as expected, Moldovans say they will need international assistance to help manage the situation.

Moldovan President Maia Sandu has already begun to seek that support. In recent days, Sandu has spoken with various world leaders and officials, including French President Emmanuel Macron, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and European Commissioner Olivér Várhelyi.

In addition, the United Nations delivered its first humanitarian airlift to Moldova for Ukrainian refugees on Wednesday. The government of Lithuania provided monetary assistance this week, by allocating more than $830,000 to help Moldova manage the current refugee emergency. Other countries, like Greece, have also vowed to chip in.

But some Moldovans are also hoping that the influx of refugees can help reverse decades of demographic decline.

Stretching along Ukraine’s southern border, Moldova became an independent state in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The nation endured a civil war in the early 1990s, which ended with it losing control of the Russian-backed Trans-Dniester region. Young Moldovans often flee the country in search of jobs and financial security, which has, in turn, further damaged the country’s economy.

Ionita, who is an expert in public finance at the Institute for Development and Social Initiatives, an independent Moldovan think tank, says the lack of jobs and extreme poverty have created the largest wave of emigration in the country's history.

Its population has been reduced by more than a million since the early 1990s, and about one-third of the population lives and works abroad. Approximately 35,000 Moldovans are still leaving every year.

“We are the only country in Europe with such a large number of migrants,” Ionita said.

This population decline has caused serious labor shortages over the years. Now experts like Ionita believe that Ukrainian refugees may actually represent an economic opportunity for Moldova. “We have been facing a shortage of labor for many years, and refugees could easily make up for that shortfall,” he told Yahoo News.

The country’s economy currently has the capacity to absorb 5,000 to 10,000 people in areas such as construction and textiles, he said, and the IT sector, which has been doubling in size every two years, could also take up to 5,000 skilled workers.

An older woman in a scarf looking tearful hugs a small girl, as refugees in winter clothes, some in backpacks, stand waiting.
Refugees at a border checkpoint near Palanca, Moldova, a village near the border with Ukraine, on March 1. (Nikolay Doychinov/ AFP via Getty Images)

The Moldovan government has said Ukrainian refugees should be integrated economically and should be able to start earning money. To facilitate this, it has simplified the processes for Ukrainians to open bank accounts, enroll their children in local schools and access health care. It has also lifted legal barriers preventing them from entering the workforce.

Moldovan companies have already started to offer them jobs as graphic designers, office managers, construction workers, restaurant staff and information technology workers.

In the shadow of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Moldova officially signed its application for membership in the European Union on Thursday. Ukraine has also formally submitted its own EU application, although the bloc usually takes several years to accept new members.

“We want to live in peace, prosperity, and be part of the free world,” said Sandu, shortly after signing the application. “It took 30 years for Moldova to reach maturity, but today the country is ready to take responsibility for its own future."