A war in Ukraine could spark Europe's next big refugee crisis

The continent already has a problem dealing with those fleeing war, and it may be about to get worse

Julia Paevska’s ambulance is travelling towards a checkpoint set up by the army on the road between Bakhmut and Luhanske, near the frontline in eastern Ukraine. *** Local Caption ***  rv22ap-cover story5.jpg
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The first casualty of war is the truth, but it is also the brutal impact of conflict on civilians who are caught between cynical governments and politicians. War dismantles societies, destroys families, burns down villages and wrecks cities. It also displaces enormous numbers of people: a tide of refugees seeking safe haven.

Should Russia go through with an alleged plan to invade Ukraine, the latter country would experience a massive demographic shift. In recent meetings with members of the US Congress, senior Biden administration officials have estimated that between one and two million refugees could flee from the fighting. This would destabilise Europe.

This wave of human souls seeking shelter would absolutely cause untold chaos. The refugees would have to go through Poland, a country with no experience of recent mass migration waves. Nonetheless, Poland has pledged solidarity with Ukraine, and will honour the Geneva Convention to protect any of these potential refugees.

There are already more than a million Ukrainians in Poland who had earlier immigrated in search of jobs; but a crisis of a million or more terrified people arriving without resources is an entirely different scale. Polish officials have been stoic, but are also painting a bleak picture. Recently, on Polish national radio, the Deputy Interior Minister, Maciej Wasik, said: “We are prepared for the worst-case scenario. And we have been taking steps for up to a million people.”

The Polish Office for Foreigners has said it has prepared places for 2,000 people in 10 different centres around the country. But this will not be nearly enough. Polish Border Guards are also working trying to make more space for refugees, though it will probably be no more than 4,000 spots.

It might help to learn from the mistakes made during the Syrian refugee crisis. The Syrian war – now in its 11th year – uprooted five to six million people, including more than two million children. This put enormous strain on nearby countries such as Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt. It opened up new and dangerous transit routes via Greece and the Balkans into Croatia and the EU. It sent families risking their lives on unsafe rubber boats that were doomed to capsize. When people are desperate to flee danger, they will do anything. Right now, many refugees and migrants from Afghanistan and elsewhere are trapped in icy northern Bosnia near Bihac, once the site of heavy fighting during the 1992 to 1995 war, hoping to cross illegally into Croatia and then Europe. They try, but are constantly sent back by Croatian border police, to wait in Bosnia, freezing and starving.

Syrians, as well as economic migrants and those fleeing persecution in South Asia and Africa, have also ended up marooned in Greece. Islands like Lesbos harboured thousands of refugees, not entirely successfully. After an EU-Turkey deal ended the refugee path, Greece bore enormous pressure. The deal effectively punished Greece due to its geography and put pressure onto populations inhabiting islands usually meant for 300 people. For refugees, some of these islands became like open-air prisons. It is true there were innovative pioneering aid projects that united locals and migrants. These groups aimed to create jobs and to ease tensions between locals and new arrivals. But they weren’t nearly enough.

The refugees would have to go through Poland, a country with no experience of recent mass migration waves

There are doubts Poland has the capacity to take on a million more people who are likely to arrive without money, jobs or a plan of how and where to live. Poland has increased its GDP seven-fold since 1990, but the World Bank identified challenges last year, such as an ageing population and difficulty leveraging technology. Water resources are scarce in Poland, and the country is severely affected by droughts that cause the loss of crops from year to year.

Poland's history is also rooted in deep trauma. A country lying in the cross hairs of the former Soviet Union, many Poles also have dark memories of the Second World War, where they were overrun first by Germany, then by the Soviet Union. An estimated six million Poles died in the war – about 17 per cent of the population. A renewal of Cold War tensions is the last thing Poland needs. Last year, when the Belarusian government was suspected of sending many migrants and asylum seekers – many of them Afghans fleeing the recent Taliban takeover of their country – to Poland, Polish border officers pushed them back. This led to a wave of anxiety among Poles, who naturally fear any kind of incursions on their territory from the East.

And is Europe ready to absorb more refugees? With former German chancellor Angela Merkel gone, there are questions as to who will take the moral lead in Europe. Mrs Merkel allowed more than 800,000 refugees into Germany, taking a firm stand that they needed shelter. But she stepped down in October, and the new government has already indicated that they would not be involved militarily in holding back any potential Russian invasion into Ukraine. Unlike many of their Nato allies, they have sent helmets rather than weapons.

So where could Ukrainian refugees go? France and Britain took very low numbers of refugees during the Syrian crisis: even “welcoming” Scandinavian countries were less supportive than they might have been. Some wanted refugees to return to Syria long before it was safe for them to go home. So far, the lead has fallen on French President Emmanuel Macron, who led the negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin last week.

I recall many visits to France's "Jungle", the desperate migrant haven in Calais, where thousands of desperate people waited, trying to pass from France into Britain. Their lives were hellish. The Jungle was closed down in 2016, but before that, it was home to nearly 7,000 people, many of them unaccompanied minors.

This crisis might be different from Syria, though. Ukrainians have the right to visa-free travel to the EU. So the border police might not be able to prevent them from entering. But the initial chaos, the transit route, the dire cold and the lack of facilities will all be there.

There are already more than two million internally displaced Ukrainians, according to the UN, since the conflict began three years ago, as well as 3.5 million people in need of humanitarian aid. These numbers would swell and swell as soon as Russian tanks rolled across the border.

The next few weeks are urgent and important – not just for Russia, European powers or the US. They are critical for the millions of people in Ukraine who are gathering their documents and packing bags, ready to make the long and sad journey away from their homes.

Published: February 14, 2022, 7:00 AM