Not a Design Flaw in Putin’s Strategy: Ukraine’s Refugee Crisis and the Great Global Test

The massive flight of refugees from Ukraine has created a humanitarian crisis that dwarfs anything Europe has seen since World War II. More than 4 million people have poured into neighboring countries, and as long as Russia’s savage war continues, millions more will flee. Already, the flow of refugees from Ukraine far exceeds the number of Syrians, Afghanistan and Iraq who fled to Europe in 2015, upending European politics.

Europe’s first reaction to Ukraine’s flight was an impressive show of solidarity, given the suddenness with which the crisis erupted. The refugees, most of whom are women and children, because most men are bound to stay in Ukraine to fight, were welcomed and housed even as their numbers grew.

But the scale of this crisis is staggering and it is still in its infancy. Dealing with it will require more coordination, imagination, funds and determination both within Europe and from the United States and its allies elsewhere. Existing refugee centers should receive much more assistance, and ways must be found to encourage refugees to go to countries that have more capacity to receive them. Preparations must also be made now to help Ukrainians return home, should a lasting peace eventually take hold.

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Opening the doors wide to European refugees raises an inevitable comparison with the treatment of refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and other countries. About 16,000 people remain in refugee camps in Greece, and many of them are starving because they do not have the same rights that are guaranteed to Ukrainians. But the answer to a double standard cannot be to close the doors to Ukrainians.

To put things into perspective, almost a million Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis crossed the Mediterranean Sea to seek refuge in Europe in one year, in 2015. Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, nearly one million people left Ukraine every year. week. Unless there is a peace agreement, Russia will continue to bomb civilian infrastructure. Ukraine will continue to fight for its survival. Ten million people, around a quarter of Ukraine’s population, could end up leaving the country in the coming months.

Cities in Poland, Moldova and Romania have been transformed, putting pressure on schools, housing, hospitals and government aid programs. Warsaw, a city of around 1.6 million, now hosts more than 300,000 Ukrainian refugees, many of whom are sleeping in hastily set up reception centres. Overcrowded shelters for women and children are targets of human trafficking and criminal exploitation.

Refugees are not a design flaw in Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine. The indiscriminate shelling and shelling of civilian infrastructure is part of a larger strategy to demoralize the civilian population and drive residents to neighboring countries, where their presence can be destabilizing. This became clear during last year’s episode on the Belarus-Poland border, after Alexander Lukashenko, Belarus’ autocratic ruler, apparently fabricated a crisis by encouraging migrants to enter Poland. .

Over time, resentment of Ukrainian refugees may grow. The people who first took in the refugees could turn against them, pressuring their governments to force Ukraine to end the war on Russia’s terms. Reducing this pressure, by supporting countries hosting refugees, makes this tactic of trying to militarize refugees less effective.

The Council of the European Union has already taken an important step by adopting a directive which grants temporary protection status to Ukrainian nationals and certain lawful permanent residents in Ukraine for a maximum period of one year. Most Ukrainians already had the right to visa-free travel to European Union countries for 90 days. The new measure gives them the right to live, work and go to school in EU countries without having to go through the official asylum procedure.

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But there is still a lot to be done to help the places where refugees are gathered and to help refugees get out of overcrowded reception centres. Britain’s Homes for Ukraine scheme, which pays families and organizations to host refugees, has issued 2,700 visas so far, while Finland has offered places in universities to 2,000 Ukrainians.

These one-off efforts are important but insufficient given the millions of people involved. The European Union has set up a platform to match offers of aid with people in need. Seven countries, including Norway, Liechtenstein and Switzerland, have pledged to welcome some 15,000 Ukrainians currently in Moldova. But that’s a small fraction of the estimated 98,000 Ukrainians in Moldova, many of whom are reluctant to leave because a language they know, Russian, is spoken there.

The European Union has also identified around €17 billion in pandemic recovery funds and programs to promote social and economic cohesion that could be immediately spent on urgent needs, including housing, education, health care and child care. An EU proposal to address the current crisis would distribute more of these funds to countries hosting large numbers of refugees. Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia would receive 45% more funding than they would have received. Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Estonia – the member states that have taken in the largest number of Ukrainians relative to their national population – would also benefit from this increase.

Efforts to humanely welcome people displaced by war should not be limited to Europe. Canada, home to a large Ukrainian population, has agreed to accept an unlimited number of people fleeing the war to stay there for at least two years. Even Japan, long reluctant to accept refugees, has agreed to accept Ukrainians.

President Joe Biden’s announcement that the United States would accept up to 100,000 people is a good start, but the country can do more, especially when public support for welcoming Ukrainian refugees is strong. The United States has been a key player in Ukraine over the years, whether encouraging Ukrainians to stand up to Russia or persuading Ukrainians to accept the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from their territory after the collapse of the Soviet Union, a decision that many Ukrainians deeply regret today.

As the world enters a period of greater instability, its leaders can no longer ignore the need for a coordinated and humane response to all those fleeing war and other desperate circumstances.

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Abdul J. Gaspar