by William Nattrass
Wednesday, 30
March 2022
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07:45

Ukraine’s neighbours welcome refugees — but for how long?

The citizens of Eastern Europe are already dividing along familiar lines
by William Nattrass
A child refugee from Ukraine looks out a bus window on March 25, 2022 (Photo by DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP via Getty Images)

For many, one of the greatest surprises of the Ukrainian war has been seeing countries like Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, previously lambasted for their isolationist tendencies, becoming humanitarian superpowers providing succour to millions of refugees.

It’s been argued that the warm welcome can be attributed to refugees being of the ‘same civilisation’ as their hosts. Yet scratch the surface, and it’s clear that this argument only goes so far. On a recent trip to a regional town in Moravia, the eastern part of the Czech Republic, I was told that “on TV they say nine out of ten Czechs want to welcome refugees. Here, everyone says ‘I’m number ten.’”

There’s been a significant Ukrainian presence in the Czech Republic for a long time. Prior to the war, Ukrainians were the country’s largest foreign minority, subject to a particular set of stereotypes. They’re perceived as poorly educated cheap labour, so simmering resentment among the ‘left behinds’ of the Czech Republic is likely as hundreds of thousands more arrive. Another stereotype relates to organised crime: Ukrainian mafia groups have been known to extract protection money from immigrants in exchange for support in obtaining documentation, accommodation, and work.

Such generalisations have been largely set aside amid Ukrainians’ westward exodus. But the first rumblings of political discontent are already making themselves known, with former prime minister and current leader of the opposition Andrej Babiš claiming the government is “giving priority to refugees over our citizens.” There’s little arguing with the sharp response from Prime Minister Petr Fiala, who asked incredulously “what would Mr. Babiš have us do? Leave them out on the streets?”

Yet even Czechs offering whole-hearted support only do so on a time-limited basis. A survey has suggested that 60 per cent of Czechs think assistance to refugees should be limited to just a few months. Meanwhile, only a quarter think Ukrainians should receive benefits and assistance in finding accommodation. Eighteen per cent say they have negative views of Ukrainians but are willing to put aside their prejudices for now, while six per cent report unqualified negative opinions.

Meanwhile, projections of the impact of the refugee crisis on the Czech economy mean perceptions are only likely to go one way from here. With interest rates climbing rapidly in an attempt to combat inflation, people are suddenly finding themselves priced out of getting a mortgage; an unhelpful context for the sudden arrival of hundreds of thousands more people on the housing and rental market. And while the refugee crisis is being cast as a favourable development for the labour market, where a chronic shortage of low-skilled workers has been a problem ever since businesses reopened after Covid closures, this only plays into pre-existing stereotypes about Ukrainians.

There are growing signs that attitudes towards the war will become yet another dividing line between liberal urbanites and more conservative rural groups. In small towns and villages, negative views of the refugee crisis are nested within a wider scepticism about the West’s role in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict. Metropolitan urbanites tend to believe in the righteousness of western interventionism, while some in rural areas feel the Czech Republic has freed itself from twentieth-century Soviet satellite status only to become a stooge of western powers. The Czech Republic’s fulsome welcome for refugees is moral and good; but that doesn’t mean all-too-familiar cracks of division won’t widen as the war goes on.

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Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
3 months ago

This will be one of the biggest consequences of Russian agression for Europe – the destabilising effect of literally millions of refugees/ migrants who, once admitted, will have little incentive to return to a destitute, war scarred and partially occupied country. Ireland is talking about accepting 200,000 refugees. Ukrainians would represent 4% of the population. To keep up Ireland would require another 560 doctors, tens of thousands of extra school places, and many other resources, which of course are not available. Resentment will replace sentiment very quickly.

William Murphy
William Murphy
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I note that Irish politicians, like politicians everywhere, are tirelessly generous with other people’s money. I bet they are not putting this policy to a referendum.

https://www.irishtimes.com/news
/ireland/irish-news/ireland-s-humanitarian-aid-for-ukrainian-refugees-likely-to-be-2-8bn-next-year-1.4838597

Peter B
Peter B
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I don’t see that resentment automatically follows from this at all. Ukrainian refugees are likely to be fairly well-educated and highly motivated with a strong work ethic.

Tony Buck
Tony Buck
3 months ago
Reply to  Peter B

Yes – they have halos too.

David Nebeský
David Nebeský
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

So you think that Ukrainian women and children will not return to their husbands and fathers? Really?

David Nebeský
David Nebeský
3 months ago

Ukrainians are not “perceived as poorly educated” in Czech Republic. The exact opposite is true – Ukrainian workers are known to be overeducated for the work they do.
Czech people welcome refugees from Ukraine because nearly all of them are women and children, while they husbands and fathers fight for their country. It is quite different situation from “war refugees” from Africa and Middle East which were mostly young men.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 months ago

Re: Moravia. This region is part of the Czech Republic, but alot of it used to be German-speaking (Brno, Znojmo, Valtice, Lednice, Hodonin, etc.). Even though the German speakers were almost completely expelled in 1945 or shortly thereafter, the influence of that culture still lingers there, which may also explain why the feeling of brotherhood towards the Ukrainians isn’t quite so strong there.

stephen archer
stephen archer
3 months ago

The situation at the moment is one thing but if Russia keeps bombarding and destroying towns and cities east of Kiev and then escalates long distance missile attacks on Lviv and western Ukraine, how many displaced people and refugees will there be in 3-4 months? 20 million seeking refuge in Europe? And Putin won’t be shedding any tears for this, it’s part of his grand plan, at least the destabilising aspect, which so far has been working for him. So the question is, what will Western Europe/EU do about this before it gets to this stage? It will only affect the US indirectly. So far, it’s just been a matter of collectively watching on the sidelines and offering token assistance apart from the few who are providing meaningful military support. To put brakes on the Russian aggression will require radically stepping up military support bordering on intervention, and we all know the risks of this, but the madman has to be stopped and sooner than later. I’m not optimistic.

Neven Curlin
Neven Curlin
3 months ago

The USA has made the EU’s bed, and now the EU must lie in it.

Slava Ukraini! Herojam Slava!

God, I’m such a good person if I say so myself! Back to my home office now.