Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 2 April 2022


Putin Knows What He’s Doing With Ukraine’s Refugees. This Is the World’s Big Test.

Credit...David Butow/Redux

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The mass flight of refugees from Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis that dwarfs anything Europe has seen since World War II. More than four million people have poured into neighboring countries, and as long as Russia’s savage war continues, millions more will flee. Already, the flow of refugees from Ukraine is far greater than the number from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq who fled to Europe in 2015, upending European politics.

Europe’s initial reaction to the flight from Ukraine has been an impressive show of solidarity, given how suddenly the crisis exploded. Refugees, most of whom are women and children, because most men are required to stay behind in Ukraine to fight, have been welcomed and housed even as their numbers swell.

But the scale of this crisis is staggering, and it is still in its early stages. Coping with it will demand more coordination, imagination, funds and determination both within Europe and by the United States and allies elsewhere. Existing refugee centers should receive far more assistance, and ways need to be found to encourage refugees to move on to countries that have more capacity to host them. Preparations should also be made now to help Ukrainians return home, should a lasting peace eventually take hold.

Opening the doors wide to European refugees raises an inevitable comparison to the treatment of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. About 16,000 people remain in refugee camps in Greece, and many of them are going hungry because they lack the same rights that are being guaranteed to Ukrainians. But the answer to a double standard cannot be to close the doors to Ukrainians.

To put it in perspective, close to one million Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe in one year, 2015. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began on Feb. 24, nearly one million people have left Ukraine every week. Barring a peace agreement, Russia will keep bombarding civilian infrastructure. Ukraine will keep fighting for its survival. Ten million people — roughly a quarter of the population of Ukraine — could end up leaving the country in the coming months.

Cities in Poland, Moldova and Romania have been transformed, putting pressure on schools, housing, hospitals and government assistance programs. Warsaw, a city of about 1.6 million people, is now hosting more than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are sleeping in hastily set up welcome centers. Overcrowded shelters for women and children are targets for human trafficking and criminal exploitation.

Refugees are not a design flaw of Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. Indiscriminate bombing and shelling of civilian infrastructure is part of a broader strategy to demoralize the civilian population and drive residents into neighboring countries, where their presence can be destabilizing. This became clear during last year’s episode on the Belarus-Poland border, after Aleksandr Lukashenko, the autocratic ruler of Belarus, apparently manufactured a crisis by encouraging migrants to cross into Poland.

Over time, resentment of Ukrainian refugees may grow. People who started off welcoming the refugees could turn against them, putting pressure on their governments to force Ukraine to end the war on Russia’s terms. Easing this pressure, by supporting the countries that are hosting refugees, makes this tactic of trying to weaponize refugees less effective.


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The Council of the European Union has already taken an important step by passing a directive that grants temporary protected status to Ukrainian nationals and certain legal permanent residents of Ukraine for up to one year. Most Ukrainians already had the right to travel without visas to European Union countries for 90 days. The new measure gives them the right to live, work and attend school in E.U. countries without having to go through the official process of seeking asylum.

But far more needs to be done to assist the places where refugees are clustered, and to help refugees find their way out of overcrowded welcome centers. Britain’s “Homes for Ukraine” program, which pays families and organizations to take in refugees, has resulted in the issuing of 2,700 visas so far, while Finland has offered spots in universities to 2,000 Ukrainians.

These ad hoc efforts are important but insufficient given the millions of people who are affected. The European Union has established a platform to match offers of help with those in need. Seven countries, including Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, have pledged to take in some 15,000 of the Ukrainians now in Moldova. But that’s a small fraction of the estimated 98,000 Ukrainians in Moldova, many of whom are reluctant to leave because a language they know, Russian, is spoken there.

The European Union has also identified roughly 17 billion euros in funds for pandemic recovery and programs to promote social and economic cohesion that could be immediately spent on urgent needs, including housing, education, health care and child care. An E.U. proposal to address the current crisis would distribute more of those funds to countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia would receive 45 percent more funding than they would have gotten. Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Estonia — member states that have received the highest number of Ukrainians in proportion to their national populations — would get that increase as well.


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Efforts to humanely accommodate those displaced by the war need not be confined to Europe. Canada, which is home to a large Ukrainian population, has agreed to welcome an unlimited number of people fleeing the war to stay for at least two years. Even Japan, which has long been reluctant to take in refugees, has agreed to accept Ukrainians.

President Biden’s announcement that the United States would accept up to 100,000 is a good start, but the country can do more, especially when public support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees is strong. The United States has been a key player in Ukraine over the years, from encouraging Ukrainians to stand up to Russia to persuading Ukrainians to agree to the removal of nuclear weapons from their territory following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a decision that many Ukrainians deeply regret today.

As the world enters a period of greater instability, its leaders can no longer ignore the need for a coordinated and humane response to all of those fleeing war and other desperate circumstances.

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