How will Eastern Europe respond to millions of Ukrainian refugees?
A confrontation in Ukraine wouldn’t be limited to that country: the whole of Eastern Europe would face a new wave of mass migration. A former Polish ambassador to Ukraine has called for his country to prepare for every scenario, including the occupation of the whole of Ukraine, saying Europe “should already be thinking about a possible migration crisis.”
The Ukrainian minister of defence meanwhile told the BBC that an invasion “would be a disaster not only for Ukraine, but also for Europe. A few million migrants, Ukrainian refugees, would probably end up at the Polish-Ukrainian border, and also at the Polish-German border.”
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Meanwhile, politicians in eastern Europe are already suggesting that taking in refugees would be a moral duty in the event of war. Czech defence minister Jana Černochová said the country’s large Ukrainian minority population means “we would be the country which would bring in crowds of refugees from Ukraine”.
Such discussions are hypothetical, but eastern Europe has already experienced large-scale immigration from the east resulting from Russian aggression. It’s thought that after Russia annexed Crimea and separatist fighting took place in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region in 2014, as many as 1.5 million Ukrainians arrived in Poland alone.
New conflict could see displacement on a far greater scale. This could lead to serious upheaval among central and eastern European countries which, despite taking in large numbers of Ukrainian economic migrants since 2014, have been united in opposition to refugees arriving from war-torn countries in the Middle East. Given that Ukrainian minority populations in central and eastern Europe already tend to work low-skilled jobs, a further influx could generate some resentment among local workers too.
But it’s likely that a large wave of refugees from Ukraine would be seen in a different light. Traditionalist leaders such as Viktor Orbán oppose migration from the Middle East on the basis of a feared ‘Islamisation’ of Europe, yet this kind of cultural unease would not be replicated with the arrival of Ukrainian migrants. In this context, leaders like Orban and Poland’s Mateusz Morawiecki may be more receptive to incoming Ukrainian migrants.
Another difference would be in the attitudes of the refugees themselves, as Černochová implied. Those fleeing war-torn countries in the Middle East tend to view western Europe as their target destination — but Ukrainians would likely prefer settling in eastern Europe, joining well-established communities of their fellow countrymen.
Eastern Europe will feel a sense of moral duty if war in Ukraine does break out, resulting in part from the region’s historical identification with suffering at the hands of the Kremlin. But even so, the sheer weight of the potential new wave of migration would quickly implicate the whole of the EU. If hundreds of thousands — or millions — of displaced people arrive in eastern Europe, nations which have long decried the use of redistributive mechanisms within the EU may have to beg Brussels for their reintroduction. For years, it has been the southern states who have born the brunt of huge influxes of migrants, but now the boot may be on the other foot.