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How Europe Is Responding to Ukrainian Refugees 

Ukrainian refugees and their children at the Medyka border crossing in Medyka, Poland, on Friday, March 18, 2022. The number of refugees reaching Poland from Ukraine now exceeds 2 million, mostly women with children, Polish border authorities said. (Bloomberg)

Russia’s February invasion of Ukraine has driven about a third of the nation’s 41 million people from their homes. More than 5 million of the displaced have left Ukraine for other European countries, producing the fastest moving refugee crisis since World War II, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They’ve been well-received so far in Europe, where the war in Ukraine triggers a specter of Russian expansion that is part of the collective memory. The European Union granted them the right to live, work and receive social services in any of its 27 member states for as long as three years. There’s no guarantee the welcome won’t fade, however, as it did for asylum-seekers from the Middle East, Asia and Africa during a crisis in 2015. 

1. Where have Ukrainians gone? 

Poland is the No. 1 destination. The Polish government set up reception points along the 500-kilometer (311-mile) shared border, with citizens mobilizing to help. Poles and Ukrainians have similar cultures and languages. Despite being the aggressor, Russia was the second-largest destination. Other border states Romania, Hungary, Moldova and Slovakia also served as major landing zones. But as the war ground on, refugees increasingly relocated beyond the frontier areas, fanning out across Europe, with Germany the most popular haven. The UN has registered more than 2 million border crossings into Ukraine since the war’s start but noted that people may have been moving back and forth amid a volatile situation.

2. What explains the positive reception?

For Europeans, the war in Ukraine is nearby. It evokes Cold War memories of a Moscow determined to dominate the eastern part of the continent. Also, Ukrainians are predominantly White and Christian. The earlier wave of refugees was made up largely of Muslim Arabs and Asians from Syria, Iraq, North Africa and Afghanistan, and they arrived at a time when European fears of Islamic extremism were high. The Ukrainian refugees are mainly women, children and the elderly, given that Ukraine restricts men of military age — 18 to 60 — from departing. Those in 2015 were mostly men. So far, even far-right, anti-immigration nationalists such as France’s Marine Le Pen have taken a welcoming approach. Not all the refugees were treated equally, however. Members of Ukraine’s Roma minority encountered discrimination after escaping to neighboring countries.

3. Will the welcome last?

That’s unclear. There were also outpourings of solidarity during the 2015 crisis in many countries, especially early on. Donations to aid agencies spiked, and populations heaped pressure on governments to do more to help. But as the refugee crisis continued, far-right nationalists stoked anti-migrant sentiment. A number of EU countries temporarily tightened border controls, while others erected fences along sections of their frontiers to keep people out. If it’s different this time, shared culture may not be the only factor. Another element is the EU’s shrinking population. Even before the war started, Poland and the Czech Republic leaned on Ukrainians as a source of labor. Some Ukrainian companies have already started to relocate production to the bloc.

4. What’s the EU offering the refugees?

The bloc for the first time activated its Temporary Protection Directive, a mechanism adopted in 2001 to respond to a mass influx of displaced people coming from outside the EU. It allows Ukrainian refugees to stay for as long as a year in member states, with the possibility of two additional yearlong extensions, and waives the usual requirement of a lengthy application process to achieve refugee status. The 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’ve been offered accommodation by an approved local sponsor are eligible to live and work in the country for as many as three years and to access health care, education and government benefits. Canada, home to a large Ukrainian diaspora, launched a pathway to fast-track applications for temporary residence for refugees. And the US committed to taking in as many as 100,000 people fleeing the fighting and unveiled a streamlined application process for those with connections to America.

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