Press play to listen to this article
As millions of Ukrainians flee the war, the head of the UN refugee agency warns that Europe’s initial wave of support could eventually erode in a bitter backlash.
In a recent interview with POLITICO, Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, recalled that the wave of Syrian refugees in 2015 also began with Europeans welcoming those fleeing the war home. But it soon began to divide the EU and fostered the rise of anti-migrant and far-right political movements – a legacy that continues to this day.
“Economic concerns, the impact of COVID, they will inevitably resurface,” Grandi said. “And then, if the situation is protracted, which we don’t know, but it could be, then I fear that the wave of solidarity will be exhausted and provoke a backlash, which would make things even more difficult.”
More directly, however, Grandi addresses “my first concern” — the sheer volume of refugee flows from Ukraine, which has already eclipsed the onslaught from Syria in 2015.
More than 3.5 million people have fled the country since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. accordingly the UN, with the vast majority going to EU countries. That means the bloc has already absorbed a population the size of several of its smaller members and is approaching the population of Croatia, the EU’s newest member.
It’s hard to say how high that number will climb.
In the last few days, Grandi said, “we’ve seen a slight slowdown in arrivals.” But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the wave of refugees is slowing down. Many Ukrainians moved to western Ukraine in the early days of the invasion, when Russian forces attacked mainly in the south and east. If the situation worsens in the coming weeks, these people could leave the country.
“It may be that the Russian offensive has not yet significantly affected western Ukraine, where a very large number of displaced people are now waiting,” said Grandi.
Grandi spoke to POLITICO while in Brussels for meetings. He also visits the countries bearing the brunt of the Ukrainian exodus.
“The impact of millions of people is huge,” he said, even for countries “that are pretty well organized, like I’ve seen in Romania and Poland.”
In Warsaw, for example, Grandi said the Polish government told him, “They’ve already thought about how they need to hire more teachers or find more space in health centers or public hospitals because basically from one month to the next their population is increasing.” by 2 million.”
Poland’s welcoming approach stands in dramatic contrast to its stance in 2015, when Warsaw refused to participate in an EU plan that required countries to “relocate” Syrian asylum-seekers across the continent. The fierce debates over this plan have left scars in the EU – the terminology now used for Ukrainian refugees has even been changed from “resettlement” to “transfer‘ to avoid the specter of time.
The heated debates in 2015 broke out after an initial welcoming phase. In fact, then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel initially instituted an open-door policy, only to reverse it just a few weeks later. Still, her country eventually took in over a million asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 – a move critics say has helped fan the flames of the country’s far-right.
Grandi said you can’t directly compare 2015 to 2022.
Many fleeing Ukrainians have family or friends across Europe, he noted, “and that’s an advantage.” And the EU’s decision to immediately give Ukrainians the right to live and work within the bloc will help people to assimilate, he argued.
“That allows people to spread naturally across the continent,” Grandi said.
But at the moment Ukrainian refugees are heaped in the countries around Ukraine. Understandable, said Grandi: “Some want to return as soon as possible.”
However, if the trend continues, “these countries will be congested,” he added. “So I think at some point we’ll have to move from spontaneous burden-sharing to a more structured one, but I’m not suggesting we do it right away.”
The other obvious difference between 2015 and today is race – Ukrainians are predominantly white and European. For example, the immediate protection now being offered to Ukrainians has not previously been extended to people fleeing the war in Afghanistan.
“Much has been said: do Europeans see other Europeans more favorably? There can be some of that, and it clearly shouldn’t be,” Grandi said. “However, I think that here the connection between war and flight is seen more clearly than ever.”
Great confirmed reports discrimination against non-Ukrainians – including Africans – trying to flee the war.
“Unfortunately, some cases happened both inside Ukraine and at the borders,” he said. But, he added, “I was heartened by the assurances … given by the Polish government from the start that this was not state policy.”
Grandi refused to speculate whether EU companies have a cap on taking in Ukrainian refugees. Some EU officials have said the bloc could accommodate nearly 15 million people.
As the numbers continue to escalate, analysts and officials are wondering if the EU will also change its stance on migration from other countries like Africa. Grandi said he would continually remind European leaders “of the solidarity they showed in the early days of the current war,” stressing the point: “An effort can be made.”
https://www.politico.eu/article/un-refugee-chief-fears-solidarity-ukraine-un-refugee-agency-europe/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication UN refugee chief fears solidarity with fleeing Ukrainians could spark backlash - POLITICO