by William Nattrass
Tuesday, 25
January 2022
Analysis
10:30

War in Ukraine would provoke a new migrant crisis

How will Eastern Europe respond to millions of Ukrainian refugees?
by William Nattrass
Credit: Getty

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.” 

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.

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Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 months ago

A friend of mine in Slovakia also reported that there are many Ukrainians living and working in Slovakia (both legally and illegally). Alot of them come to SK, make a bit of money and go back to fighting in eastern Ukraine. Her attitude towards them, as fellow Slavs and therefore part of the same extended family, is markedly different than that towards migrants from the middle East. Her opinion of them was that they would be as hard to integrate as the Roma and shouldn’t be allowed in in great numbers.
I remember feeling quite shocked and resentful about this at the time (2015) but now, with several years of witnessing/dealing with the integration difficulties we have with the Afghans, Syrians, Iraqis etc in Austria – I think she might have been on the money.

Last edited 3 months ago by Katharine Eyre
Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

And now we have a fair few Slav immigrants in the U.K. they’d probably integrate more smoothly here too. It would solve our shortage of labour – though I’d still rather see Ukraine succeed in its own right.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
3 months ago

Aah yes. Let populations explode and shoehorn more and more people into the West. Interested to know how that is going to work out.

Anna Bramwell
Anna Bramwell
3 months ago

2 million Ukrainians have already left Ukraine, half to Poland and half to Russia.. As they are real refugees they went to the nearest country. Why would they try to settle in Germany, France or UK?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
3 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

Why do Afghans and sub-Saharan African fleeing war try to get to Europe and the U.K. instead of neighbouring countries? Why did refugees make the arduous journey across the Atlantic in the last couple of hundred years?
They’ll go a long way for a better life.

Last edited 3 months ago by Ian Stewart
stephen archer
stephen archer
3 months ago
Reply to  Anna Bramwell

In many cases they’re not refugees but economic migrants wanting to work in Poland. According to my wife, a number who have migrated with refugee status are of Polish descent since western Ukraine was at one time part of Poland. The Polish population in Ukraine was not always well accepted, with ethnic tensions and at the start of WW2 some Polish villages were wiped out by guerilla forces from nearby Ukrainian settlements. The feature film Wolyn depicts a dramatic recreation of events at the time. It’s one of the most disturbing, horrific and gory films I’ve watched. The situation in Ukraine is complex and difficult for an outsider to comprehend, and then there is the Russian culture in different parts, not only the eastern part, thanks to the Soviet’s mass forced movement of populations.

Last edited 3 months ago by stephen archer
Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
3 months ago
Reply to  stephen archer

Slightly off topic, but the best 2 books I read last year were about Trochenbrod, a Jewish schtetl which was located in modern Ukraine. The area has been part of many nations in the past and was incredibly diverse…how the different groups and factions acted during WW2 was really complex and also terrifying. Groups that had been living together quite peacefully turned on one another and committed the most awful atrocities on each other. If you’re interested, the books are I Want You To Know We’re Still Here by Esther Safran Foer and The Heavens Are Empty by Avrom Bendavid Val.

stephen archer
stephen archer
3 months ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Thanks. We watched a film about this a while ago, with Elijah Wood playing Jonathan Safran Foer, who searched for the town, or at least its location. It’s called Everything is Illuminated, from 2005.

Rafi Stern
Rafi Stern
3 months ago

I read that Israel is preparing for a wave of Jewish refugees from Ukraine.

Iris C
Iris C
3 months ago

Ukraine is to Russia as Cuba was to the USA in the mid-60s. Arming Ukraine is, therefore, lethally hypocritical.