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Suddenly welcoming, Europe opens the door to refugees fleeing Ukraine

People arriving from Ukraine are welcomed by residents in Przemysl, Poland, on Feb. 27. (Kasia Strek for The Washington Post)
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Nations in Europe are opening the door to a historic wave of refugees fleeing the war in Ukraine, breaking with the continent’s past resistance to asylum seekers from the Muslim world and Africa and embracing hundreds of thousands of new arrivals whom some leaders are hailing as culturally and ethnically European.

The rapidly escalating Ukrainian wave — already more than 660,000 people in less than a week — appeared poised to dwarf the landmark European migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016, when 2 million people sought sanctuary, mostly Syrians fleeing civil war. Those arrivals sparked intense friction among European Union nations, fueled a resurgent movement of the far right and led to backlash policies designed to stop or turn back asylum seekers.

The solidarity of the current moment stands in stark contrast, particularly amid estimates that the numbers could soar into the millions and potentially become the largest refugee wave on the continent of the post-World War II era.

Some leaders have been unabashed about the dramatic shift in attitudes.

“These are not the refugees we are used to.… These people are Europeans,” Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov told journalists about the Ukrainians, as reported by the Associated Press. “These people are intelligent. They are educated people. … This is not the refugee wave we have been used to, people we were not sure about their identity, people with unclear pasts, who could have been even terrorists.”

“In other words,” he added, “there is not a single European country now which is afraid of the current wave of refugees.”

Photos and videos show long waits, traffic jams at border crossings as thousands try to leave Ukraine

Governments in the eastern and central parts of the continent that were once staunchly opposed to refugees have suddenly become some of the biggest supporters of an open-door policy — even as their welcoming stance appeared to be limited to Ukrainians.

In the mid-2010s, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban built barbed-wire fences and established “border hunters” with 4x4 vehicles, night-vision goggles and migrant-sniffing dogs to halt arrivals of asylum seekers from an arc of instability from Africa to Afghanistan. On Sunday, he told journalists that “everyone fleeing Ukraine will find a friend in the Hungarian state.”

When Belarus began funneling Middle Eastern and Afghan asylum seekers toward Poland last year, Warsaw dispatched troops and pushed back migrants — some of whom froze to death in the woods. In recent days, however, Polish state railways have announced free travel for Ukrainians, and tons of aid have been donated by the public.

The misery of migrants caught in Belarus's battle with Europe

Some of that disparity may be explained by the different push factors at play. European Union leaders said Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko, under heavy sanctions, was trying to manufacture a crisis and destabilize the bloc by using migrants as pawns. Now, the E.U. has a shocking war happening right next door.

“Eastern European countries see a chance to show unity with a neighbor and take a stand against Russian hostility,” said Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe. Compared with 2015 and 2016, she said, Europe “is in a very different political situation, a very different political landscape.”

But in interviews with The Washington Post, several European officials were blunt that identity politics, too, are playing a role.

“Honestly, the sentiment is different since they are White and Christian,” said one European official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly.

The E.U. is opening its doors even as it remains reticent about granting Ukraine membership in its 27-nation club. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a further appeal on Monday for “urgent accession.” So far, the E.U. has refused to assume the risk of helping defend Ukrainian territory from the long-present Russian threat or allow the free movement of 44 million people through the bloc.

How joining NATO and the E.U. became Ukraine’s unattainable dream

But the brutality of the Russian invasion and the sheer number of displaced and fleeing Ukrainians, some argued, requires a strong collective response — particularly as the struggle in Ukraine is rooted in the desire of its people to link with E.U. principles of democracy and human rights and shift away from Moscow’s authoritarian orbit.

And so the E.U., formed as a trade alliance, has taken the unprecedented step of financing the purchase and delivery of weapons to Ukraine. And E.U. leaders are expected to announce Thursday that they will allow Ukrainians to receive temporary protection for up to three years, potentially allowing them to work legally and access social services.

An emergency meeting of E.U. interior ministers achieved “solidarity among all E.U. states to jointly take in war refugees quickly and unbureaucratically,” German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said Sunday.

“I don’t know how many will come,” E.U. Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said when asked about the scale of refugees she expects. “I think we will have to prepare for millions.”

Beirens said E.U. nations have an additional interest in supporting the measure, because it would free up asylum systems that otherwise would be choked with new Ukrainian applications. Europe, however, did not take similar steps in 2015 and 2016. Asylum seekers from the Middle East and Africa have had to wait years in legal limbo in many cases, making it difficult to find jobs in the formal economy, while their claims were assessed.

So while refugee advocates have cheered the E.U.’s growing support for Ukrainian refugees, some have also bristled at how ethnicity, culture and religion appear to be driving the humanitarian response.

“For anyone who understands the liberal mind, please explain to me why the lives of Ukrainians are more precious than Haitians, Palestinians, Ethiopians, Afghans, Syrians, Iranians, Africans,” tweeted Ajamu Baraka, an American human rights activist. “Is it only the images of white suffering that moves them?”

Miles-long lines, the kindness of strangers, an uncertain future: Scenes from the Ukraine-Poland border

Tarik Abou-Chadi, an associate professor in European politics at Oxford University, tried to explain it like this in an interview with The Post: “There’s the idea of a shared fate — ‘we could be next’ — and having a shared identity that stands against Russian imperialism. So this gives some people a different sense of community with others who are now fleeing. This might increase compassion for these Ukrainian refugees, compared to those from Syria.”

In interviews Thursday, several refugees and asylum seekers in Greece — a main arrival point for those fleeing the Middle East and African conflicts — said matter-of-factly that they were not surprised that Europe was approaching the current crisis differently.

A Nigerian in Athens, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear for his safety, described following the news and empathizing with Ukrainians fleeing war.

“But, you know, a lot of people have been dying in Yemen,” he said. “And a lot of people have been dying in Ethiopia in horrible violence. Very little of that makes the news. Now it is Europe, and Europeans who are fleeing.… I hear people say, ‘All lives matter,’ but no, they don’t all matter the same. Black lives matter less.”

Even as Europe welcomes Ukrainians, it is funding the Libyan coast guard to thwart migrants from crossing the Mediterranean to Italy. Greek security forces have been accused of pushing migrants back toward Turkish waters, in violation of international law. Those who do have the fortune of reaching Greek soil often wind up in a highly surveilled camp where they can live for more than a year.

Pope Francis, visiting Greek razor wire-fenced migrant camp, challenges Europe to live up to its human rights ideals

Britain — which left the European Union in part because of a desire to “take back control” of its borders — signaled Monday that it was willing to open the door to Ukrainians, but only a crack. The offer is limited to the family members of British nationals. Home Secretary Priti Patel estimated that 100,000 Ukrainians would be able to “seek sanctuary,” provided they passed security checks.

Over the weekend, a Home Office minister tweeted — and then deleted — that there were “a number of routes” for Ukrainian refugees without family connections to come to Britain, including work visas that would allow them to pick seasonal fruit and vegetables.

The suggestion was met with widespread condemnation as inappropriate for the moment. “People are fleeing war in Europe, the like we haven’t seen in generations, in search of swift sanctuary,” wrote opposition Labour Party lawmaker Yvette Cooper.

Polls suggest Britain’s Conservative government is out of step with public opinion in the United Kingdom, with the majority saying they would support resettlement efforts for refugees. That was also the sense in south London on Sunday night, where Londoners turned up to a Polish community center to donate thousands of bags filled with clothes, medicines, diapers, sleeping bags — you name it — for fleeing Ukrainians.

“They are very vulnerable citizens. It would be ideal to see the U.K. open its doors,” said Dia Day, 19, a student who was lifting boxes of bedding into a van, destined for Ukrainian refugees in Poland.

On the continent, it remains unclear how long the warm welcome will last. In 2015, Germany’s then-chancellor, Angela Merkel, told her country “we can do it” and swung wide the doors of Europe’s largest economy to Syrians. Clusters of Germans turned out to welcome the new Muslim migrants with flowers and hugs at train stations.

But for many Germans, the welcome wore thin as refugee numbers continued to surge, migrant ranks were infiltrated by small numbers of trained terrorists, and the bills came due for financial aid. Merkel would later backtrack on her decision, one that would haunt her political career.

Emily Rauhala in Brussels, Chico Harlan in Rome, Elinda Labropoulou in Athens, Kate Brady in Berlin and Claire Parker in Washington contributed to this report.

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