Europe’s refugee burden is looming and Poland has set an example

In response to its destabilising next-door war, as Turkey did with Syrians, Poland has taken in about a million Ukrainians

Refugees from Ukraine arrive at the railway station in Slawkow, Poland, March 5. EPA
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Since the war began, about 150,000 Ukrainians have been fleeing every day into neighbouring states. That rate has begun to fall as the conflict grinds toward its fourth week, but it may tick back up with potentially intense fighting looming in Kyiv, Odessa and western Ukraine. Either way, the total number of Ukrainian refugees looks set to hit three million this week and could surge past four million by the end of the month.

Already the Ukrainian wave washing over Europe is twice the size of the 2015-16 tide of mostly Muslim refugees that shook the West. Back then, Europe and the US seemed horrified at the prospect of millions of new Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan neighbours – perhaps you remember the former US president Donald Trump’s so-called Muslim ban or the German far-right’s warnings of a coming “Eurabia”.

Today the prevailing western view seems to be that desperate Ukrainians are “like us”, so let them come. Many observers have noted the not-so-subtle racism in the West’s response. However condescending this may be toward Middle Easterners, it is good news for desperate Ukrainians, who have the added advantage of EU land borders and thus need not brave the high seas to find sanctuary.

Since 2014, more than 25,000 migrants have died attempting to cross the Mediterranean into Europe, according to German firm Statista. Although I can personally confirm that crossing the border from Ukraine into the EU is no picnic, as far as I know, no Ukrainians have died during processing.

Poland has stood out with its generosity, welcoming nearly two million Ukrainians

Ukraine’s conflict, however dire, is not yet the Syrian civil war: since 2011 more than 13 million Syrians have been forced from their homes, more than half the country’s pre-war population, including nearly seven million refugees. Thus far, about 11-12 per cent of Ukraine’s 45 million citizens have been displaced and 7 per cent have fled abroad.

Still, that’s a sizable slice of humanity, particularly in such a short period of time, and Europe deserves applause for its willingness to process millions of arrivals in a matter of days. Western countries, particularly EU states, have to their credit largely flung open their doors, even as their leaders have been busy determining the wisest military and economic response.

Perhaps driven by its own historical clashes with Russia, Poland has stood out with its generosity – welcoming nearly two million Ukrainians with no help from top aid groups like the Red Cross or UN refugee agency because Poles have opened their homes, hotels and hearts. It’s a good start, but more than likely, it really is merely the beginning.

As much as I would prefer to not consider the possibility of a years-long conflict or Russian occupation of Ukraine, Europe may soon need to figure out a long-term approach for handling and even integrating all the Ukrainians having to leave their country. One model that comes to mind is Turkey, which has hosted more than four million mainly Syrian refugees for nearly a decade and offers some parallels with the current crisis.

For starters, Turks and Syrians are both primarily Muslim, just as Poles and Ukrainians are mainly Christian, though the former favour Catholicism and the latter the Orthodox church. The flip side of the West’s apparent refugee bias is that the idea of integrating Ukrainians into Poland and other mainly Christian EU states should be much less panic-inducing.

The cuisines and cultures of eastern Poland and western Ukraine are in some areas nearly interchangeable

In addition, Turkish territories along the border with Syria are steeped in Arab and Levantine culture, from food to language and music. Hatay became a province of Turkey only in 1939, a move still disputed by Damascus. Unsurprisingly, these areas have shouldered much of Turkey’s refugee burden: Syrians now make up about one third of the population of the Turkish city of Gaziantep and a quarter of neighbouring Sanliurfa, compared to 6-7 per cent of Istanbul.

Similarly, eastern Poland and western Ukraine have a great deal of shared history, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Holocaust and stints under Russian control. Lviv, which has in recent days emerged as Ukrainians’ main domestic refuge, was Polish-controlled and known as Lwow for much of the Middle Ages. Separated by a language, as with borderland Syrians and Turks, the cuisines and cultures of eastern Poland and western Ukraine are in some areas nearly interchangeable.

The situation seems ripe for Poland to now play the Turkey role in response to its destabilising next-door war. Even before the conflict, Poland was home to more than a million Ukrainians, their largest diaspora in Europe, and served as a key recruiting ground and logistical conduit for Ukrainians returning home to fight. Poland’s population is only half that of Turkey’s, yet already its two biggest cities, Warsaw and Krakow, have taken in about a million Ukrainians combined. But the strain is starting to show: on the weekend, Warsaw’s mayor said the city had absorbed as many Ukrainians as it could and the need for an international relocation system had become urgent.

It seems contradictory, given all the lockdowns and stay-at-home orders of the past two years, but perhaps it’s fitting that this pandemic era is also an age of exile. Never before in human history have so many people been displaced from their homes, more than 85 million, according to the UN refugee agency, or more than 1 per cent of humanity.

For many Europeans this wave might recall the vast displacement of the Second World War, which highlights another historical tie between Poles and Ukrainians. After the war, tens of thousands of both refused to return to their home countries, which had become part of the USSR. In early 1946, western powers united to create a refugee organisation meant to assist those with legitimate fears of persecution – that body later became the UN refugee agency.

Beyond my concern for the Ukrainians who were so recently my friends and neighbours in Kyiv, for me this refugee wave has me thinking of Turkey, where I lived as the number of arriving Syrians ticked into the millions. Many viewed Ankara’s open-door policy as an extension of then-prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opposition to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad and an attempt to gain regional popularity as the champion of oppressed Muslims.

Whatever its reasoning, Turkey was widely and rightly lauded for its generosity. But today, a decade on from the first Syrian arrivals, Turkish citizens facing high unemployment and rampant inflation have tired of their refugee guests, who are seen as taking too many jobs.

Opposition parties have vowed to return all the Syrians and Afghans home should they come to power after next year’s elections, and have of late been out-polling Mr Erdogan’s long-ruling AKP party. This, sometimes, is the cost of doing good. It’s now Europe’s turn, once again, to bear that burden.

Published: March 14, 2022, 4:00 PM