Central Europe will need serious help from the West to ensure the region can accommodate and provide all necessary services to Ukrainians fleeing war and safeguard democratic societies, write Jakub Wisniewski and Vladislava Gubalova.
Jakub Wisniewski is a member of the board of directors of GLOBSEC and former Polish ambassador to the OECD. Vladislava Gubalova is Principal Investigator at GLOBSEC.
More than 2 million children have fled Ukraine since the start of the war. Some travel with their mothers and grandmothers, others cross borders alone. They are tired, fearful and confused.
Arian, a 7-year-old child at Przemysl station in Poland, refuses to sleep for fear of bombs. Tatyana’s children near the Medyka border crossing in Poland often refuse to talk and bite their nails until there is blood. In another case, an 11-year-old boy crossed the Slovakian border alone with a plastic bag and a phone number written on his hand.
Central Europe (CE), a region refusing to accept the relocation of a few thousand refugees in 2015, shocked the world by opening its borders to millions of Ukrainians.
They rushed to help and provide immediate assistance: accommodation, food, transport, even psychological help. But over time, the emergency will subside, the welfare state in the countries of Central Europe will become tense, the composition of societies will change, living conditions may be different, and the public opinion of local people will begin to switch.
What Central Europe is doing now is the right thing to do. Yet it will need all the support of its Western partners to ensure its ability to support Ukrainian refugees and support its society.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, more than 4 million Ukrainians have left their country, of which more than 2.3 million entered Poland, 400,000 in Hungary, 300,000 in Slovakia and 300,000 in Czechia . Germany recorded about 270,000, like Slovakia, a country 14 times smaller.
Other more populous countries like France, Spain and the UK have recorded around 25,000 each.
Every day thousands more arrive, and each new wave of refugees will be more difficult for the countries of Central Europe to welcome and process. The large number of fleeing citizens and the changing type of short- and medium-term needs to be provided are already causing pressures.
Poland took in refugees equivalent to 6% of its population, Slovakia 5%, Hungary 4% and the Czech Republic 3%. While the initial stream of fleeing Ukrainian citizens were those with family across Europe, today there are mostly unrelated women and children, increasingly traumatized people who have seen bombardments, death and desolation.
Since 2015, the Visegrad Four (V4) countries have categorically refused to accept the mandatory migrant relocation quota policy. Eventually, Slovakia admitted 16 and the Czech Republic 12, out of the 9,000 who should have been relocated.
Until a few months ago, when Lukashenko from Belarus used migrants from the Middle East to create tension on the Polish-Belarusian border, the Polish government applied a rather brutal and cynical method of pushback. It certainly did not open its borders to stranded migrants. Society supported these government policies.
It is not difficult to notice the difference in the acceptance of fleeing refugees now. The war in Ukraine is on the border of the countries of Central Europe, it is their neighbors, who also bear similar racial and religious traits. And, CE, like the rest of the world, was shocked by Russia’s naked brutality (invading its neighbor and “brother”).
While Polish, Slovak, Czech and Hungarian companies quickly organized immediate assistance at border crossings, European governments granted exceptions to incoming Ukrainian refugees allowing them to stay and work temporarily, access the health system, to apply for benefits and use motorways, trains and public transport for free.
Prompt processing by special centers is helping fleeing Ukrainians obtain national identification numbers, and schools have been tasked with finding places for new children. This is all well intentioned and the right thing to do, but it will be more difficult to implement and sustain these activities while ensuring the prosperity of countries and the stability of the social protection system.
WHEN THE DUST SETTLE
Most Ukrainians on the run will stay longer in the CE region due to the mental proximity to their home and the similarity in language and culture. Images from Ukraine show the extent of infrastructure destruction, with homes, businesses and schools in ruins – there is nothing to return.
CE societies will reshape, Ukrainian minorities reaching 10% of the population. When temporary assistance ends, tensions can arise between new arrivals and existing minorities, often heavily dependent on social benefits.
The possibility of starting work immediately will also restructure the composition of companies, with more Ukrainians as colleagues. For some countries like Poland, this is not a new phenomenon, but its magnitude will be. For countries like Slovakia and Hungary, with a strong presence of Serbian workers in the automotive industry, new colleagues will speak Ukrainian.
Soon there will be problems with the welfare state and living conditions. EC governments have already sought more discoveries from the EU to provide to support the pressure on health systems.
The size of dwellings measured in number of rooms per person is the lowest of the central-eastern EU countries among all EU states. Romania (1.1 rooms), Croatia, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia (all with 1.2 rooms on average per person) have the lowest scores, unlike Malta (2.3 rooms per person) , followed by Belgium and Ireland (2.1 rooms each). As newcomers settle, there will be competition for these scarce resources.
As societies in the region adjust to the bleak picture of war, living conditions are changing with higher prices for goods, gasoline and energy – especially against the backdrop of higher inflation and post-pandemic effects – the undeniable magnitude of compassion will subside. CE folks would like to return to normal, and with the new reality, some backlash is to be expected.
These developments, which will start to be seen in public polls sooner than most realize, will quickly be exploited by populist politicians who have been silent but not gone. The barely united societies we currently see supporting Ukraine and helping Ukrainian refugees will not last long, exposing the deep polarization in Poland, Slovakia and Hungary.
The truth is that the EC region will need serious help from the West, be it the EU and the US, Canada and Australia. On the one hand, to ensure that the region can accommodate and provide all the necessary services to Ukrainians fleeing the war, and, on the other hand, to safeguard democratic societies, not to become more polarized and to become fertile ground for dangerous national politicians.
In the end, this story is positive. The countries of Central and Eastern Europe have this time taken up the challenge. This is an opportune time for the region to gain credibility on a global scale, for the West to strengthen its image in the region and, more importantly, to support Ukraine and the Ukrainians.