Europe is doing a good job helping refugees from Ukraine
SHE WAS THINKING maybe it was fireworks. But as Olga Nietsche stared out the window of her apartment in Kiev on the morning of February 24, a rocket flew by and exploded less than a ten-minute walk away. The 28-year-old checked her phone, overflowing with messages not about her work as a translator, but about the start of the war. Then the days passed where nothing made sense. Friends in Russia – old friends, now – told her she was lying about there being a war. It wasn’t long before she had to leave. A companion with a car helped her get to Przemysl in Poland, normally a multi-hour trip, now a multi-day ordeal. It will take even more trains to reach Berlin, where his mother lives. She only takes a few papers, a sleeping bag and a change of clothes; her voice trails off as she wonders what the male relatives she left behind will face. For her part, all she wants is to sleep. It’s a small luxury, but one that hasn’t been granted to him for what seems like an eternity. Then, she says, she will volunteer to help other Ukrainians, using her language skills to help them get out of the reach of the bombs, to reach the safety of European countries that are still at peace.
Ms Nietsche is part of what is likely to become the biggest wave of refugees in Europe since World War II. More than 2 million people have fled Ukraine since the arrival of Russian troops on February 24. This number will swell. Estimates, if the bloody campaign continues, range from 5 million to possibly double that. Previous refugee flows, including when more than a million Syrians and others crossed the Mediterranean to Europe in 2015, sparked political wrangling that showed the EU at its worst. This time, the block shows its best: a mixture of generosity and pragmatism of which few could have guessed that it was capable.
It will take more goodwill in the weeks to come. In any conflict, the first to flee are those who can: city dwellers like Ms. Nietsche with passports, cars and credit cards. Those with friends or family in Ukraine’s thriving diaspora are especially likely to brave the journey, knowing they’ll have a sofa to sit on when they arrive. Despite the large number of people on the move, migration buffs are surprised that facilities for processing fleeing Ukrainians are filling up rather than overwhelmed. Ukrainians book Airbnbs en route to loved ones. Locals help in touching and imaginative ways. At Przemysl station, the mothers found donated strollers to replace the remaining ones. In Poland and beyond, people offer guest rooms or home-cooked meals.
Why such generosity now, when Europe has spent years discussing how to build fences to keep migrants out? Racism is surely a factor. Many Europeans feel more comfortable hosting large numbers of Ukrainians than Syrians or Afghans. Another may be that today’s refugees are largely women and children. (Ukrainian men of fighting age had to stay behind and fight.) Previous waves were largely made up of single men, whom locals found more threatening. Finally, proximity matters. To those on the EUeastern fringes, these refugees are neighbours. Europeans sympathize with them in part because the warmonger they are fleeing also threatens the rest of Europe.
Poland, where most Ukrainian refugees found their way, was already home to over a million Ukrainians. Some had fled Russia’s initial incursion into their country in 2014, though they were also lured by many better-paying jobs. Both countries speak similar languages and share a tangled history. Even before the crisis, Ukrainians enjoyed visa-free travel to EU. Unlike the Afghans or the Eritreans, they did not come in overloaded canoes, via refugee camps. Therefore the EUThe decision to let them all stay for at least a year, no questions asked, was relatively easy. Ukrainian children can go to school; their parents can work. European social safety nets will catch up with them if they cannot.
But strains will appear. The countries that have so far taken in the most Ukrainians, notably Poland and Hungary, have in the past opposed the mixing of migrants from one country to another. EU from one country to another, because they did not want to welcome Africans or Muslims. Not all Ukrainians who arrived for the first time in the countries bordering Ukraine will stay there. No one knows where they might go; only Britain, now outside the EU, puts up barriers. Host country politicians say Ukrainians will be eager to return home once peace is restored. But will they? the EU The scheme to grant Ukrainians ‘temporary protection’ status, approved unanimously on March 4, was designed following the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when millions fled a series of wars. Hosting them was initially intended as a short-term arrangement. But for many, it has become permanent: migrants have integrated into their adopted country, and have remained there long after the end of the wars.
A work of years
The consent of a population to welcome migrants is a fragile thing. Will the goodwill last if Ukrainian refugees are joined by large numbers of Russians fleeing the brutal regime of Vladimir Putin? Would it survive a recession induced by exorbitant energy prices, which the war has already caused? What if it was complemented by a surge in arrivals from more distant countries – if, for example, soaring food prices in the Middle East were to drive more migrants to attempt the crossing of the Mediterranean?
In 2015, Angela Merkel declared to Germany: “Wir schaffen das”. (We can handle that.) His successors across Europe should similarly bolster their electorates today. Already Ukrainians are beginning to arrive who will need more help than Mrs. Nietsche. As Ukrainian refugees are allowed to work, they will pay taxes. But their children will need schools, which will take both money and planning. The net cost of hosting Ukrainians is unknown and will surely be eclipsed by the economic shocks of the war itself. But now is the time to start preparing, while the sympathy is still fresh. In recent weeks, a united Europe has shown its best face; but work is just beginning. ■
Read more from Charlemagne, our columnist on European politics:
With war at its doorstep, Europe discovers a capacity for action (March 5)
Europe is the continent of free-riders (February 26)
Europe uses new powers to align Poland (February 19)
Our recent coverage of the Ukraine crisis can be found here
This article appeared in the Europe section of the print edition under the title “A continent coping”