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Seen from behind, a Ukrainian family walks in a line all carrying suitcases and bags and wearing winter coats
Ukrainian families arriving in Italy. Filippo Venezia / EPA-EFE

Help for Ukraine’s fleeing refugees shows the power of support when the political will is there

In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, over a million people have fled the country. The UN refugee agency estimates upwards of four million will be displaced by the conflict. The European response to the Ukrainian refugee crisis shows how generous states can be when put to the test.

In line with the values of the 1951 Refugee Convention, the EU and its member states have displayed unprecedented levels of solidarity and cooperation in recent days. As commander in chief of the Polish border guard put it: “We will help everyone, we will not leave anyone without support.”

European values” – the protection of democracy, freedom, human rights and dignity – have underpinned much of the response so far. EU president Ursula von der Leyen quickly prioritised the support of Ukrainian refugees and proposed to activate a temporary protection mechanism to remove many of the bureaucratic barriers associated with seeking asylum. This directive was developed in response to the Balkan crises of the 1990s, and had not been applied until now.

Loosening administrative constraints for refugees is one way states have responded swiftly and efficiently to the unfolding crisis. The Polish government has abandoned immigration “formalities”, stating that people fleeing Ukraine “do not have to worry about the legality of their stay.”

The hospitality of the governments, businesses and citizens of bordering countries shows an unprecedented capacity for generosity, cooperation and solidarity. Viktor Orbán, the far-right Hungarian prime minister, made declarations of welcome and promises of shelter to Ukrainians crossing the border.

Even the UK, which has an ethically questionable record of deterring refugees in recent years, has made changes. The Home Office has loosened some restrictions to allow extended family members of British residents to enter from Ukraine. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said that the new rules mean more than 200,000 Ukrainian refugees could come to the UK. Nevertheless, there is room for the UK to do even more. Ireland, for example, has dropped all visa requirements for fleeing Ukrainians.

Close-up of a sign in a Berlin train station offering accommodation and advice to Ukrainian refugees.
Ukrainian refugees have been welcomed with open arms in many European countries. Filip Singer / EPA-EFE

The successful response so far can be credited to broad political consensus of the need to support Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. This is driven by Ukraine’s geographic position in Europe, a perception of shared European culture and history with Ukraine, and collective outrage at the Russian invasion. It shows that when the political will is there, there is capacity for humanitarianism and solidarity to follow.

The usual European approach

The response to Ukrainian refugees has stood out in contrast to Europe’s other recent experiences with refugee movements, particularly those fleeing the conflict in Syria. Over one million people sought refuge in Europe in 2015 alone, with many losing their lives in shipwrecks and drownings on their journey. In this case, the European response was largely defined by reduced humanitarianism and deterrence.

Germany responded with an open-door policy, asserting stoically, “wir schaffen das” (we will manage). But Germany’s approach was at odds with eastern European states such as Hungary, Poland and Croatia. Hungarian policy was one of “zero refugees” with the construction of hard borders, abusive pushbacks and forceful removal. Viktor Orbán, so willing to offer shelter to Ukrainians, said this about Syrian refugees arriving in Hungary in 2015:

We shouldn’t forget that the people who are coming … represent a completely different culture. Most are not Christian, but Muslim.

Similar reports emerged from Croatia – then president Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic argued “a little bit of force is needed”. More recently, Poland has employed teargas and water cannon, and erected border fences against “aggressive foreign citizens”.

The approach to refugees from the Middle East has been to prioritise ideas about security concerns over their wellbeing – the overarching message being that protecting Europe means preventing refugees.

Unequal response

The Ukrainian refugee crisis is, so far, mostly a story of how humanitarianism can trump bureaucracy. Yet this has not been fully equitable. UN high commissioner for refugees Filippo Grandi acknowledged instances of discrimination, saying “there has been a different treatment” for some non-Ukrainians fleeing the country. He noted that these do not appear to be state policies.

This followed reports from some Asian and African migrants, including students, who said they were refused support at the border or struggled to leave at all. In response to the reports of racial discrimination, the chair of the African Union Macky Sall said:

All people should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity.

There are important lessons here for future humanitarian crises. States can act decisively to remove administrative hurdles and allow refugees smoother passage to safety. EU member states can find unity despite years of conflict over refugees.

Most importantly, we know that the will to enact such hospitality can be found, depending on how the conflict is perceived by society. This is driven often by the conflict’s geographic location and how clearly “recognisable” the victims and aggressors are. For future refugee crises to be met with the same generosity and solidarity, states must look back and learn from this response.

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