Prague, Czech Republic – The threat of a large-scale Russian invasion looms over Ukraine to the north, south and, especially, the east. On its western border, the countries of Central Europe are eyeing a potential migrant crisis.
The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia all say they are preparing for the possibility that war will send Ukrainians flooding their way. Some estimate that as many as five million people could flee the country in the worst-case scenario.
After President Vladimir Putin, in a significant shift from Russia’s years-long policy, recognised two rebel-run, pro-Russia statelets in Ukraine’s east on Monday, the self-described “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, the prospect of a Ukrainian refugee crisis has grown.
The UN’s refugee agency on Tuesday said it has not yet seen signs of more people rushing to escape Ukraine, but that the situation is “highly volatile” and it stands ready to protect refugees.
Central Europe is not only an obvious route for many, but a natural destination. The region is already home to millions of Ukrainians, attracted in recent years by tight labour markets in countries geographically and culturally close to their homeland.
Poland has said it is drafting plans to deal with up to one million refugees.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a right-wing populist who is close to Putin, warned that hundreds of thousands could flee across his country’s border.
Slovakia’s defence minister, Jaro Nad, told Al Jazeera: “We’re preparing for the possibility that large numbers of refugees will come from Ukraine to our territory.”
But although the humanitarian and logistical challenges are clearly serious, Central Europe’s populist governments are not phased like they were over the 2015 refugee crisis, or the recent emergency on Poland’s border with Belarus, which saw people of Middle Eastern and African origin flee their nations.
The region’s governments have wielded a hard-line stance on immigration to help build political support, taking aim at refugees and migrants from war-torn countries further afield.
But all, except perhaps Hungary, are happy to help Ukrainians.
The new centre-right Czech government may have come to power by promising to remove Orban ally Andrej Babis, but pushed by populist forces asserting Muslim migrants import crime and disease, it maintains its predecessor’s pledge to block arrivals from spots like Syria.
Martin Rozumek, director of the Organisation for Aid to Refugees NGO, told Al Jazeera that “the Czech government and society will be quite open and ready to help should Ukrainian refugees arrive”.
A government spokesman did not respond when asked about this diverging approach.
Nad said that in the event of a Russian attack on Ukraine, Slovakia would be opening its gates “not to economic refugees or migrants, but war refugees”.
Just three months ago, Poland used troops on its border with Belarus to repel crowds seeking refuge.
Warsaw explained that these were “illegal migrants” and cautioned the European Union not to fall for the weaponisation of migration by Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.
But Poland’s deputy interior minister suggests that Ukrainians driven westwards by Putin’s forces would be “real refugees”.
“Ukrainians can enter the EU and Poland without a visa so we won’t be seeing crowds pushing border fences,” says Dr Jacek Kucharczyk, director of the Institute of Public Affairs think-tank in Warsaw. “They’ll probably just enter without even seeking refugee status.“
This lack of drama helps explain the welcome, said analysts. The new arrivals are then expected to seek help not from the state but from compatriots.
More than two million Ukrainians are thought to be living in the region already, and many note that their integration has been trouble-free.
Push and pull
Some are likely to head further west to countries like Germany, but many Ukrainian arrivals may seek employment in Central Europe, allowing them to extend their stay. That should be the easy part.
Even as states around the region have been slamming the door in the face of refugees from Africa and the Middle East in recent years, they have also been quietly competing with one another to lure Ukrainians to help ease chronic labour shortages.
And as the region’s economies recover from the coronavirus pandemic, the need for labour is again reaching desperate levels. Companies report that the difficulty in sourcing staff is now a far greater threat to their future prospects than COVID-19.
Hence, the push factor of looming war, coupled with the pull of plentiful employment with relatively high wages, has some in Central Europe anticipating a boost in arrivals from Ukraine regardless of whether or not the Kremlin unleashes its army.
Recruitment specialists in Poland have suggested that there are signs that immigration is starting to pick up in the same way that it did after the 2014 annexation of Crimea. In 2015, the number of Ukrainians arriving to work in the country jumped from around 200,000 to more than 800,000.
A similar trend was seen in the Czech Republic, where Ukrainians are the largest national minority at over 130,000. Data shows that applications for long-term residency leaped by at least 65 percent that same year.
Since the start of 2022, record numbers of Ukrainians are reported to have arrived in the region to work, for instance, at ski resorts in southeast Poland’s Carpathian Mountains.
A boost in the number of Ukrainian job seekers would be very welcome, suggested Tomas Prouza, president of the Czech Confederation of Trade and Tourism, as he noted the deep difficulties caused when “the arrival of foreign workers all but stopped during the pandemic”.
But there is also worry that a war could send the numbers spiralling to unmanageable levels.
It is not without irony that some suggest Central Europe’s populists could yet find themselves forced to ask the EU for help in dealing with them.
“Poland’s capacity to deal with refugees is a mess,” said Kucharczyk, “so a large influx would be a big problem.”
With war also likely to hit economies hard, there is also a risk, he worries, that the region’s populists could quickly turn the anti-immigration spotlight on a rapidly growing Ukrainian population.