Fierce resistance in Ukraine to the Russian invasion continues. But many residents of the country are at risk of being displaced by the fighting. According to the Iranian Foreign Ministry there are around 9,000 Iranian nationals living in Ukraine, one to two thousand of them students, who may now wish to leave until the conflict ceases.
Though NATO member states were warning of an imminent Russian invasion for weeks before the onslaught began on February 24, the Islamic Republic, like other countries, was slow to respond to the potential threat to its citizens. Hundreds if not thousands of Iranians are now having to take shelter in cities like Kyiv and Kharkhiv, and in the west of the country near the border, with concerns rising over a potential lack of food and fuel.
Only when the war started did the Iranian government raise the specter of an evacuations plan. On Friday, February 25, in a phone conversation with his Hungarian counterpart, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian asked Budapest for help evacuating Iranians from Ukraine, which borders Hungary.
Then in a TV interview on Saturday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said the Iranian embassy in Ukraine had “a variety” of means at its disposal to evacuate Iranians from besieged cities under attack and transfer them to border areas, by rail and in Embassy vehicles. However, he added, the patchy imposition of martial law could hamper the effort. Those in Kyiv and Kharkhiv, he said, could not leave until 8am on Monday, February 28.
Khatibzadeh also claimed that the embassy in Kyiv had done what it could to move Iranians in the capital to safer locations. But numerous videos and photos have been posted online by Iranians still inside Kyiv. In fact, some have claimed, the embassy was one of the first locations to be evacuated.
So far, the Iranian government has not collated or shared figures on the number of Iranians who have left Ukraine since the invasion.
Sheltering Vlogger: “It’s Hard for Me to Leave”
Ukraine became a more popular destination for Iranian emigrés in the past few years, with more stringent immigration policies applied by some Western Europeans countries and visa applications for the US blocked by the Trump administration. Many Iranians struck out for Ukraine in a bid to escape the economic crisis and political stalemate at home.
Mohammad Javad is an Iranian-born vlogger and medical student who was based in Kyiv for the past five years. For the time being he has sought refuge in the west of the country, about 300km from the capital. “The situation is bad even where I am,” he told IranWire. “In the few minutes we’ve been speaking, the [air raid] sirens sounded three times. There were checkpoints at every village we passed on the way here, and civilian and military forces stopped and searched us.”
The Iranian Embassy in Kyiv, he said, had prevaricated over what guidance to issue to Iranian citizens and when – to the point of asking them what they thought it should do. “Unlike other countries, which advised their nationals to leave before the conflict started, the Iranian embassy advised us to keep calm. They even asked us to fill out a form and suggest what they do.
“The embassy has now issued a few communiques. After the ‘keep calm’ statement, on the very day the war started, they told us to get out of Ukraine any way we could. But by then there were no planes. Those that could got themselves to the Polish border in their own cars.”
Those who make it to Warsaw can solicit a flight home to Iran. Mohammad Javad told IranWire that some of his compatriots had been stuck in westbound queues out of Ukraine for more than 36 hours in sub-zero temperatures, in lines tens of kilometers long. “Some of my own friends have been waiting to cross the border in their cars for four days now.”
Food and fuel are starting to grow scarce in parts of Ukraine, he says. “Most of the gas stations have run out of gas, especially the ones on the roads. And those that still have gas sell just 20 liters to each customer. It’s very cold now; at night it falls below zero. After spending days on the border in cars with empty tanks, many Iranians are now in urgent need of help by the Foreign Ministry.”
Despite the danger, Mohammad Javad told IranWire, packing up and leaving would not be an easy decision for all those affected, and many might try to stay on. “Most of the Iranians here are either students or have immigrated to Ukraine to make a living. Some brought everything they had. I came here on a student visa, but built up my life in Ukraine from scratch. With only a year left until I graduate, it’s difficult for me to simply leave all this hard work behind and go back to Iran, or start all over again somewhere else.”
Iranians in Ukraine Rally to Help Each Other
On February 28, a group of Iranian students at Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv posted a picture of themselves huddled in an old shelter, lying next to sewage pipes with just a few blankets to cover them. The image was picked up both by Iranian state media and online, prompting a barrage of criticism of the Foreign Ministry.
In the absence of concrete help from the government, some Iranians in Ukraine have already formed mutual aid groups, posting explanatory videos online to signpost their countrymen and women to services. Some are using Instagram’s Live feature to inform fellow Iranians of their options.
Some have also tried to pressure the Iranian government to do more by reporting on the situation. On Sunday, alerted to the possibility that some young Iranian men might not want to return home for fear of the draft, the Ministry of Science announced that returnees would not be immediately called up for military service. How they are to return at all, however, remained unaddressed.