LVIV, Ukraine -- After annexing Crimea, Russia has given residents of the peninsula one month to opt out of Russian citizenship.
Thousands of them, predominantly Ukrainian speakers and Crimean Tatars, who make up about 12% of the local population, are leaving.
Arseniy Yatsenyuk, the prime minister of Ukraine, has said that the rest of Ukraine can accommodate 23,000 Crimeans and the government has set up a hotline for locals hoping to leave the peninsula.
Many of those leaving Crimea are seeking refuge in the west of Ukraine.
Over 2,000 have already contacted the regional authorities in Lviv, a town in western Ukraine, about temporary residence.
They arrive by car or on the daily train from Simferopol, which takes about 24 hours.
Some have gone further afield.
Last week, a group of 32 people from Yevpatoria, on the western coast of Crimea, crossed the Ukrainian border with Poland and applied for asylum.
Locals in Lviv have helped the Crimean arrivals offering accommodation and other support.
An activist from the nationalist Svoboda party donated food and some of her great-grandchildren’s toys.
One young couple is putting up a family of six Crimean Tatars in their living room; another man offered to host ten families in his tourist chalets in the nearby Carpathian mountains.
Kerim, a 50-year old Crimean Tatar from Simferopol, did not wait until the referendum.
He, his wife and two grown-up sons left their home and prized collection of 150 doves, crossing Ukraine in their Zhihuli car.
He had never been to Lviv before.
“I had heard that the people here are good,” he said, in Russian, when we met at a youth hostel in central Lviv where the family has been staying, free of charge, since they arrived ten days ago.
“We don’t want to be Russians, we want to be Ukrainians,” he said, sitting in a room of brightly coloured bunk-beds.
He and his wife had moved to Crimea in 1992 from Uzbekistan, where their parents had been sent during Stalin’s deportation of the Crimean Tatars in 1944.
They worked in construction and got on well with the local Russians.
Then the Russian soldiers took over last month.
“Now Russians are squabbling over how they will divide up the houses of their Tatar neighbours,” said Kerim’s 21-year-old son.
“Even those who are still there.”
The family has located a mosque in Lviv where their elder son can marry his fiancée.
They are keen to move on from the hostel and are considering buying a plot of land outside Lviv or joining a relative in the Khmelnytskyi region in central Ukraine.
During our conversation, over a generous spread of coffee, halva and sandwiches, Kerim received several calls from friends who had left Crimea too or those who were deciding whether to stay or go.
Stepping outside onto the street lined with elegant Habsburg-era buildings, Kerim said that he believes he will return to Crimea one day.
The Russian troops tried to provoke the Tatars into violence, but they gritted their teeth and kept calm.
“We will fight when the time comes,” he added, lighting a cigarette in the warm Lviv dusk.
Source: The Economist