Countries across Eastern Europe have announced plans to host hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians have been turning up at the country’s border crossings with Poland, Romania and Moldova. Many of these countries, which have taken a hardline stance towards refugees arriving from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan in recent years have taken a decidedly different tone in pledging to host and support their Ukranian neighbours.
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Multiple humanitarian agencies have issued statements expressing their commitment to displaced Ukrainians asking countries to keep their borders open to refugees seeking shelter.
“UNHCR is also working with governments in neighbouring countries, calling on them to keep borders open to those seeking safety and protection. We stand ready to support efforts by all to respond to any situation of forced displacement,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi.
Grandi said on Twitter on Saturday that 150,000 Ukrainians had now fled the fighting in their country.
More than 150,000 Ukrainian refugees have now crossed into neighbouring countries, half of them to Poland, and many to Hungary, Moldova, Romania and beyond.
Displacement in Ukraine is also growing but the military situation makes it difficult to estimate numbers and provide aid.
— Filippo Grandi (@FilippoGrandi) February 26, 2022
Moldovan President Maia Sandu said her country’s borders were open to Ukrainian citizens and it would help those arriving in their “humanitarian needs”.
Poland, which has taken a hardline stance against migration in recent years, announced its willingness to take “as many as there will be at our borders”.
Hungary, which has taken a similarly hostile stance to refugees arriving from countries such as Syria in recent years, pledged to remain open for those fleeing from Ukraine.
“We’re prepared to take care of them, and we’ll be able to rise to the challenge quickly and efficiently,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has previously described migrants arriving in Europe as a “poison”.
‘Only so many places’
Hanne Beirens, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, said there were reasons for the different attitudes taken by some countries that have been notably hostile in recent years to refugees.
“Firstly, this is a positioning from EU states within a particular geopolitical conflict. In that respect it fits within a broader narrative of disapproving of Russian actions and the kind of solidarity in different kinds of dimensions with the Ukraine, government and population with those who may be displaced because of the conflict,” she said.
“There’s only so many places that people who are displaced by the conflict with Russia can go, and some have already moved to Moldova. Others when crossing the border immediately land into EU territory, so there’s no other place for them to go and so that kind of principle of seeking protection in a safe haven in the first country you cross fits perfectly here.”
Poland – which faced fierce criticism from human rights groups for its treatment of asylum seekers who were pushed to the Belarusian border by Belarusian authorities, including the legalisation of pushbacks last November – has taken a decidedly different stance towards the prospect of a large arrival of Ukrainian refugees.
A number of reception centres have already been established in the country.
Greece, an entry point for hundreds of thousands of people fleeing war and unrest from Syria and Afghanistan in recent years, also made pledges of support for Ukrainian citizens and those arriving in Ukraine’s neighbours.
Earlier in the week, there were suggestions it would make commitments to host Ukrainian refugees, but a statement issued on Friday stopped short of this, offering instead technical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine’s neighbouring countries.
“EU countries, including Greece, stepping in to protect Ukrainian refugees shows what we’ve long urged for: safe access to the EU for refugees is both necessary and feasible. And fair and humane asylum systems benefit us all.”
Greece’s listing Ukraine as “a ‘safe country of origin’ only weeks ago runs counter to those very principles”, said Minos Mouzourakis, legal officer at Refugee Support Aegean.
Greece has faced fierce criticism in recent years for heavily documented pushbacks of asylum seekers from its land and sea borders.
Dimitris Choulis, a lawyer working with refugees on the Greek island of Samos, one of the main points of arrival for refugees in 2015-16, noted the different responses of many EU nations to the prospect of a large-scale displacement of Ukrainian refugees in Europe.
“I was surprised from Finland, for example, in the announcement after the invasion how willing they are to receive refugees while after years of bombing in Syria or Afghanistan they don’t do the same,” he said.
Choulis questioned how Ukrainians who choose to seek asylum outside of their neighbouring countries will be treated. “Are we going to ask them why they didn’t go to a neighbouring country and if they come here [to Greece] are they not refugees anymore?” he asked.
Beirens said there were multiple different reasons for this different response among some countries.
“It would be the test of time to see how many would be displaced from Ukraine and what the EU’s response would be moving forward … It’s hard to assess how long the conflict will last, whether there will continue to be attacks on multiple regions of Ukraine, which would, in and of itself, trigger refugee movements to Europe,” said Beirens.
If that is the case it could lead to similar refugee numbers as in 2015.
“The lowest predictions in terms of a full-scale invasion of Russia talks of one million displaced persons, but there are so others who talk about up to three million or more,” she said.
“The response may be quite different precisely because of the longstanding tradition of Ukraine nationals coming into the EU to work and study there.”