How Europe responds to Ukrainian refugees



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Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February drove out about a third of the country’s 41 million people. More than 5 million displaced people have left Ukraine for other European countries, producing the fastest growing refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They have so far been well received in Europe, where the war in Ukraine triggers a specter of Russian expansion that is part of the collective memory. The European Union has granted them the right to live, work and benefit from social services in any of its 27 member states for up to three years. However, there is no guarantee that reception will not fade, as it did for asylum seekers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa during a crisis in 2015.

1. Where have the Ukrainians gone?

Poland is the number one destination. The Polish government has set up reception points along the 500 kilometer (311 mile) common border, with citizens stepping up to help. Poles and Ukrainians have similar cultures and languages. Despite being the aggressor, Russia was the second destination. Other border states, Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia, also served as major landing zones. But as the war progressed, refugees increasingly moved beyond the border areas, spreading across Europe, with Germany being the most popular haven. The UN has recorded more than 2 million border crossings into Ukraine since the start of the war, but noted that people may have moved back and forth in an unstable situation.

2. What explains the positive reception?

For Europeans, the war in Ukraine is near. It evokes Cold War memories of a Moscow determined to dominate the eastern part of the continent. Moreover, Ukrainians are predominantly white and Christian. The first wave of refugees was largely made up of Muslim Arabs and Asians from Syria, Iraq, North Africa and Afghanistan, and they arrived at a time when European fears of extremism Islamic were strong. Ukrainian refugees are mostly women, children and the elderly, as Ukraine prohibits men of military age – 18 to 60 – from leaving. Those in 2015 were mostly men. So far, even far-right anti-immigration nationalists like France’s Marine Le Pen have taken a welcoming approach. However, not all refugees were treated equally. Members of the Roma minority in Ukraine have faced discrimination after fleeing to neighboring countries.

3. Will the reception last?

It’s not clear. There were also outbursts of solidarity during the 2015 crisis in many countries, especially at the beginning. Donations to aid agencies soared and people pressured governments to do more to help. But as the refugee crisis continued, far-right nationalists fueled anti-migrant sentiment. A number of EU countries have temporarily tightened border controls, while others have erected fences along certain sections of their borders to keep people out. If it’s different this time, shared culture might not be the only factor. Another element is the decrease in the population of the EU. Even before the start of the war, Poland and the Czech Republic relied on Ukrainians as a source of labor. Some Ukrainian companies have already started relocating production to the bloc.

4. What does the EU offer refugees?

The bloc activated its Temporary Protection Directive for the first time, a mechanism adopted in 2001 to respond to a massive influx of displaced people from outside the EU. It allows Ukrainian refugees to stay in member states for up to a year, with the possibility of two further one-year extensions, and removes the usual requirement of a lengthy application process to obtain refugee status. Refugees are promised access to a residence permit, housing, education, work, medical care and social benefits, including a means of subsistence if necessary.

5. What are other countries doing?

In the UK, Ukrainians who have been offered accommodation by an approved local sponsor can live and work in the country for up to three years and access healthcare, education and government benefits. Canada, home to a large Ukrainian diaspora, has launched a pathway to fast-track temporary residency applications for refugees. And the United States has pledged to take in up to 100,000 people fleeing the fighting and unveiled a streamlined application process for those with ties to America.

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