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People fleeing Ukraine sitting on a train wrapped in blankets.
EPA/Miguel A Lopes

Ukraine refugees: six practical steps to rise to the challenge

Europe is, yet again, in the midst of a huge immigration wave – and it is likely to dwarf all the previous ones. In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more refugees have crossed the EU’s borders in the first two weeks than during the entire 2015 wave. This development poses huge challenges for the EU and the UK.

How can we best deal with this new human tragedy, and what are the lessons to be learned from previous refugee waves?

1. Provide arrivals with jobs

Host nations need to do what they can to integrate refugees into social and economic structures immediately. That means avoiding lengthy asylum procedures and bureaucracy. Red tape often leaves refugees living in limbo after arrival, unable to support themselves.

Instead, arrivals should immediately be given the opportunity to work. This will not only help the refugees themselves, but will enable them to send support back home to anyone they’ve had to leave behind. Lengthy asylum procedures, uncertainty and exclusion from the labour market have also been shown to be major factors inhibiting refugees’ social integration and their future economic outcomes in previous waves.

2. Give them the training they need

Getting a job is certainly the best way to integrate, but people arriving from crisis may need training and support to get up and running.

Refugees are, by definition, fully unprepared for life in another country because their flight was never planned. The Ukrainian lawyer, doctor or teacher working before the crisis in Kyiv probably had little idea that they would soon end up as a refugee somewhere in Europe. In order to get a job, they need to be provided with the training they need, be that to learn a language or to gain the certifications needed to practice their profession in their host country. The host nation should also make sure that their existing certifications proving their qualifications are recognised quickly and pragmatically.

3. Let them choose where to live

Refugees are often given little choice in where they settle but they must be given that freedom. Being able to choose where they live is the best way for them to find a job because they can tap into existing networks of Ukrainians.

Previous dispersion policies have often deprived refugees of the advantage of existing ethnic networks and have left them allocated to areas with little economic opportunity, limiting their own prospects and undermining integration into receiving communities.

4. Plan ahead

Governments need to be seen to have a clear, coordinated and well communicated plan for dealing with the crisis – immediately and in the longer run. Such a plan should provide a staggered and transparent strategy, with clear longer term commitments.

A woman holding a sign coloured like the Ukrainian flag reading 'refugees welcome'.
Community support is vital over the long term. Alamy

This is essential not only for the refugees themselves, but also for employers, who will refrain from training refugees if there is uncertainty about how long they will be available.

And if different host nations don’t coordinate their policies on this matter, they may regret it later. Different arrangements across countries will lead to cross-country flows.

5. Engage local communities to avoid prejudice

An important lesson from past refugee waves is the need to engage local populations in the immediate and longer-term strategies of support and labour market integration.

National governments should make it possible for more local-level groups to support arrivals – including the people who are going to employ them, work alongside them and provide them with the day-to-day services they will need.

If local populations are engaged in the process of integrating refugees, the experience will challenge any potential misconceptions or prejudices that may emerge.

6. Acknowledge the potential for a backlash

It is important to foresee the political fallout of a refugee crisis beyond the immediate stages. In Europe, the wave of empathy towards Syrian refugees in 2015, symbolised by the tragic death of a Kurdish boy who had washed up on a Turkish beach, quickly gave way to hostility after the violence that unfolded on new year’s eve in Cologne only a few months later.

Massive migration flows will inevitably create resentment and anxiety, which can be (and has been) exploited opportunistically by radical political movements. The value of openness, transparency and good communication about how refugees are being integrated is significant.

The challenge is huge, but the influx of people from Ukraine is also an opportunity for European nations to show strength and solidarity in the face of human tragedy. Countries along the Ukrainian border that were most sceptical about accommodating refugees during previous crises are this time firmly committed to humanitarian support. For the UK, this crisis provides an opportunity to illustrate that it and the rest of Europe can unite, overcoming their political differences in the interests of effectively responding to a humanitarian crisis.

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