by William Nattrass
Saturday, 26
February 2022
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17:21

Europe faces a dilemma over the Ukrainian refugee crisis

So far only eastern European countries have pledged their support
by William Nattrass
Credit: Getty

“In migration and refugee issues, geography matters,” Balázs Orbán, Political Director for Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, told me in Budapest on Thursday — the day Russia launched an invasion of Ukraine which shook the world. 

Russia’s assault on Ukraine leaves neighbouring countries such as Hungary, Slovakia and Poland with a stomach-churning sense of Cold War déjà vu. But the region is already feeling the effects of the invasion, as refugees make their way to the borders. Before the scale of Russia’s military ambitions became clear, central European politicians warned that millions could be displaced in the event of conflict. It’s now feared that the refugee crisis could turn out to be even worse than predicted. 

For the time being, most of those arriving in Hungary from Ukraine are ethnic Hungarians from the border regions, often provided with shelter by family or friends. Hungary ceded large portions of its territory to Ukraine in the Treaty of Trianon following WWI, and around 150,000 Hungarians still live in the country today.  

Attempts by the Ukrainian government to limit the use of the Hungarian language by these communities have led to bitter disputes between Budapest and Kyiv. Such negative relations raised fears that Hungary might be hesitant about accepting non-Hungarian refugees from Ukraine. But various government officials have assured me that Hungary will accept all refugees, no matter their ethnic origin. 

The humanitarian commitment of the wider central Europe region has also been called into question because of the complete rejection of refugees by Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015. Yet now, none of these nations show a desire to shirk their duty. 

Polish Interior Minister Mariusz Kamiński has already announced that reception centres for refugees, offering meals, medical care and accommodation, are being set up along the Polish-Ukrainian border. Around 15,000 people entered Poland from Ukraine in the 24 hours following the outbreak of war, and the numbers are expected to increase rapidly. Hungary announced a waiver on the usual procedures for seeking asylum and is expecting up to 600,000 refugees, while the Czech Republic has a plan in place to accept “many thousands of refugees,” according to ministers. 

Geography matters — and Ukraine’s neighbours are putting aside their fears of migration to provide succour to those in need. Yet with a truly huge wave of refugees possible, the West now faces a humanitarian dilemma. Does it respond in kind to eastern Europe’s rejection of southern refugees in 2015 (an episode which caused untold bitterness and resentment in Brussels); or does it volunteer to share the burden? 

Hungarian politicians are well aware that they are in no position to demand refugee relocation, given their staunch opposition to such schemes when the boot was on the other foot. “If other countries voluntarily help us take in refugees, then we would welcome that,” Balázs Orbán told me on Thursday. “But we don’t want to force countries to do what they don’t want to do.” 

The large number of Ukrainians already living in countries like the Czech Republic and Slovakia also means many are likely to favour joining existing communities in the same region. But if the stream of refugees turns into a flood, the EU and Britain will face a choice between leaving eastern Europe to deal with a humanitarian crisis alone, or making refugee aid a collective effort.

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Stephen Walshe
Stephen Walshe
4 months ago

Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic had absolutely no “duty” to accept Syrian refugees. The conflict in Syria needed to be resolved in Syria, with the assistance of the Arab world, and Russia, which had been responsible for sustaining the vile Assad regime for so long. This situation is totally different, as Ukrainian refugees are unlikely to destabilise or terrorise European societies. But Ukraine can ill afford to lose more of its young people.

Last edited 4 months ago by Stephen Walshe
James Joyce
James Joyce
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

You put “duty” in quotes but you also should have put “Syrian refugees” in quotes. That group was NOT refugees but filthy invaders seeking to scam the EU–and many were not even Syrians, not that that matters.
Poland was brave and correct in holding the line, doing Germany’s dirty work. Now Poland is doing the right thing again by welcoming real European refugees fleeing war.
Bravo Poland!

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 months ago
Reply to  Stephen Walshe

I don’t think the collapse of the Assad regime would have stopped the refugees, but probably increased it. People were fleeing the war.

James Joyce
James Joyce
3 months ago

If you want to flee war, go to a neighboring country, the country of first refuge. After that, you are an economic scammer.
Tons of people show up in the US say they are fleeing something. Par example, I’m a Nigerian teenager who would be subject to FGM. I “fled” to Ivory Coast, Niger, Morocco, Spain, France, Canada, and then I turn up @ JFK demanding asylum?
Give me a break!

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
3 months ago
Reply to  James Joyce

That’s not really a response to my comment.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
4 months ago

Personally, I like the Eastern Europeans (except perhaps the Romanians & Albanians – mea culpa).
In general, they integrate well, work hard, and pay their taxes.
Would far rather accept white Christians than what I’m not allowed to say.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
3 months ago

The author seems to have missed the key difference in demographics of the refugees. The refugees claiming to come from Syria were nearly all young men. By contrast, many Ukranians of military age are staying and fighting for their country.
As soon as anything moderately bad happens in a country, everyone there knows this this is their golden opportunity to get to Europe. This has led to a situation where someone like Assad knows that as long as he is sufficiently ruthless, he can permanently get rid of substanial numbers of his citizens who are non-Allawis. Our asylum rules actually encourage the Assads of this world.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
3 months ago

“The humanitarian commitment of the wider central Europe region has also been called into question because of the complete rejection of refugees by Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic during the Syrian refugee crisis of 2015. Yet now, none of these nations show a desire to shirk their duty. “

Really? The writer does not get it?

But as Stephen Walshe says – the looming disaster facing all the developed world is decline of working age, and young, population – This is the biggest resource depletion of any, the demographic depletion. China is being hit like Japan was, like Europe is. Few workers, and more old and unemployable for them to support.

My guess is Putin wants the people of Ukraine as much as any resource it has, Russia’s population is in a nose dive. And Ukraine needs them its self.

But to fight this problem just doing what Tony Blair did – go and get millions of unskilled, unlike peoples to replace the children not being born by natives – is not a great answer. If Ukraine lost a million people I suppose the writer thinks they can just get a million Africans, Afghani, and Egyptians to replace them, and that will work fine….

R Wright
R Wright
3 months ago

Expect western European leaders to reject Ukraine’s refugees. They are too white and problematic. Eritreans only please.

D Glover
D Glover
3 months ago
Reply to  R Wright

Have you looked at the BBC’s footage from the Ukraine/Poland border? Some of the ‘refugees’ look distinctly ‘non-slavic’.
In fact, they look like the sort of people that Belarus tried to foist upon Poland a month ago. I think Europe is about to be sold goods under false pretences.

D Glover
D Glover
3 months ago

On BBC R4 ‘Today’ programme at 7.00 this morning I heard a woman from UNHCR being interviewed.
She claimed that people were fleeing their homes in Ukraine so fast that they ‘didn’t have time to grab their passports’
This is nonsense; no one packs and leaves their flat that fast.