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The view from the ground.

Europe Is Ready for All of Ukraine’s Refugees

The European Union is preparing to meet the burden of a historic refugee crisis.

Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Vohra-Anchal-foreign-policy-columnist18
Anchal Vohra
By , a Brussels-based columnist for Foreign Policy who writes about Europe, the Middle East and South Asia.
Volunteers wait for refugees from the Ukraine arriving at the main train station on March 1, 2022 in Berlin.
Volunteers wait for refugees from the Ukraine arriving at the main train station on March 1, 2022 in Berlin.
Volunteers wait for refugees from the Ukraine arriving at the main train station on March 1, 2022 in Berlin. Hannibal Hanschke/Getty Images

PRZEMYSL, Poland—The area in front of the international train station in Przemysl, a city on the Poland-Ukraine border, now features piles of warm clothes spilling out of cartons, stuffed animals—cats, monkeys, bears—waiting for adoption, and a table with basic medicines and first-aid supplies. The donations are an expression of concern and warmth for the newest arrivals to the European Union, the thousands of Ukrainians crossing the border every day.

As soon as one train from Ukraine stopped at the platform, hundreds of people poured out, many of them women holding onto the tiny hands of their children. Their wide eyes and pale faces told of a harrowing time they spent hiding in basements before arriving in Poland. The fear culminated into tears of relief as they understood they were finally somewhere safe from Russia’s attacks.

Friends and relatives had queued outside the train station in freezing temperatures and taken off the blankets they were wrapped in to cover the arriving passengers. Hugs, kisses, more tears, and assurances that all would be fine were whispered in the chilly air. Ukrainians have had professional and personal links with Europe for a long time, but it wasn’t just their family members helping but an army of volunteers. The Polish volunteers guided them to trains and buses going to cities and towns both inside Poland and across Europe. Maria Majdor, a Polish volunteer, said 35 trains were running around the clock to ferry Ukrainians throughout Poland. Those who did not know where to go were ushered into a reception center.

PRZEMYSL, Poland—The area in front of the international train station in Przemysl, a city on the Poland-Ukraine border, now features piles of warm clothes spilling out of cartons, stuffed animals—cats, monkeys, bears—waiting for adoption, and a table with basic medicines and first-aid supplies. The donations are an expression of concern and warmth for the newest arrivals to the European Union, the thousands of Ukrainians crossing the border every day.

As soon as one train from Ukraine stopped at the platform, hundreds of people poured out, many of them women holding onto the tiny hands of their children. Their wide eyes and pale faces told of a harrowing time they spent hiding in basements before arriving in Poland. The fear culminated into tears of relief as they understood they were finally somewhere safe from Russia’s attacks.

Friends and relatives had queued outside the train station in freezing temperatures and taken off the blankets they were wrapped in to cover the arriving passengers. Hugs, kisses, more tears, and assurances that all would be fine were whispered in the chilly air. Ukrainians have had professional and personal links with Europe for a long time, but it wasn’t just their family members helping but an army of volunteers. The Polish volunteers guided them to trains and buses going to cities and towns both inside Poland and across Europe. Maria Majdor, a Polish volunteer, said 35 trains were running around the clock to ferry Ukrainians throughout Poland. Those who did not know where to go were ushered into a reception center.

At the border crossing, Polish buses ferried Ukrainians as many as half a dozen times an hour, along with ambulances and medical staff, leading them to a Tesco shopping mall-turned-reception center. Foldable beds, suitcases, and children flooded the hall, leaving hardly any space for refugee families taking shelter. Those who had a destination had buses waiting outside. For others, the arrangements were not perfect, but at least it was safe and warm inside the reception hall.

At both locations, Western volunteers from different parts of the world were present, offering all sorts of help. A German volunteer held a placard that said simply “BERLIN” as an invitation to any Ukrainians in need of free transportation. Another group of Germans from Düsseldorf brought a couple of vans filled with first-aid medical aid and meals of sausages and sauerkraut. These vans doubled as free rides to German cities. An U.S. aid worker was boarding the same train back to set up an emergency wartime health care center, and a group of British volunteers were traveling over the border to rescue people stuck in Ukrainian cities or “help in any other way” they can.

Outside the Tesco reception center, Anja Tworek, a Ukrainian in her early 20s, held a placard that said, “Free accommodation for Ukrainians.” She was offering her own home to any refugees from Ukraine who may want one. Lucy, a Polish grandmother, stood a few meters from Tworek and was volunteering with much younger compatriots holding teddy bears. “These are for Ukrainian children. We got them because sometimes they are even afraid to get out of the bus,” Lucy said. “They are traumatized.”

The scenes on display were heart-warming, part of a humane policy exhibited not just by individuals but also systematically by the European Union. It was, however, also stunning to witness a complete policy reversal after Europe dealt very differently with refugees from Syria and Afghanistan.

According to the United Nations, more than 2 million Ukrainians have sought refuge in Europe in the past month, and activists believe the number will soon jump to 4 million people, maybe more depending on the bombardment and destruction. This would make it the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

In other refugee crises of recent decades, European countries were divided over migration policy and tended to externalize the problem by keeping refugees out of the EU by building walls, making deals with neighbors like Turkey to stop their entry, capping limits on refugee arrivals, and refusing to allow them in even if they froze to death on their borders.

This time, however, Europe has overwhelmingly responded with compassion toward the war-affected people. In 2017, Ukrainians were already given the right to visa-free travel anywhere in Europe, but now they have been offered more protections.

Less than 10 days after Russia launched its invasion, the 27 member states of the European Union voted to implement, for the first time, the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD). It obliges European states to provide immediate international protection to Ukrainians fleeing bombs and offers health care as well as permission to reside and work in any European nation. It is granted for one year and can then be prolonged to up to three years.

Security of status allows refugees to focus on their other problems away from home, including supporting their loved ones. Catherine Woollard, Brussels-based director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles, a pan-European nonprofit, said TPD is also essential for good management of the situation. “With the TPD in place, people leaving Ukraine do not need to apply for asylum (although they can if it is necessary), meaning that asylum systems do not become overloaded,” she said. “Any sense of panic or political division in response to displacement will play into the hands of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin. There has been a collective response to the security crisis, and the same is needed for the humanitarian side.”

The EU has adopted a multipronged approach to deal with the crisis, starting with offers of emergency funding to member states that share a border with Ukraine, such as Poland. Even though Poland is thus far hosting the largest share of Ukrainian refugees, many are expected to travel to other European nations, especially if the conflict escalates. Germany has started to prepare and open reception centers, and many German citizens have also opened their homes to Ukrainians.

The United Kingdom is still struggling to come up with a coherent policy to help Ukrainian refugees and has been criticized for offering “piecemeal” measures. So far, the United Kingdom has allowed Ukrainians with friends and families or with sponsors to enter the country under the Ukraine family scheme and community sponsorship scheme. But that leaves out a lot of people who may not find a sponsor before a bomb destroys their home. Yet British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said while the U.K. will be “as generous” as it can possibly be, it will not emulate the European Union and allow any Ukrainian to enter the United Kingdom because of the need for security checks.

Since only about 50 applications were cleared as of Sunday, the U.K. has come under severe criticism. France’s interior minister accused the British government of showing a “lack of humanity” by refusing to accept hundreds of people fleeing war and waiting for days for permission to join their families in the United Kingdom.

Although Europe’s response to the Ukrainian crisis is praiseworthy, so far it has revealed European double standards. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has promised that everyone from Ukraine will be welcomed. Activists are pleased with that announcement, but they believe the same approach could and should have also been taken in 2015 toward Syrians and last year toward Afghans. The EU’s policy of externalization—ensuring Muslim refugees and people of color remain outside of Europe—has been described as racist.

“Asylum policy is not always so open, unfortunately,” Woollard said. “In the worst cases, European countries have engaged in unlawful and, at times, violent action to prevent people—many of them with protection needs—from reaching safety.”

Wiebke Judith is a legal policy advisor with Pro Asyl, a human rights organization that works to protect people seeking asylum in Germany and throughout Europe. She said there is a certain element of racism in the EU’s differing responses, but familial ties as well as the fact that the war is on Europe’s doorsteps have also informed Europeans’ response.

“Ukraine is a neighboring country, and there are many personal and professional ties, and the sympathy is just really great,” Judith said. “The feeling that Russia is a threat drives support for Ukraine in Eastern European states too. But we have not seen similar sympathy for people of color who have literally died on our borders, who have drowned, who have been beaten. And so, yes, we do think there is racist element to these distinctions.”

Lucy, the Polish grandmother waiting to welcome Ukrainian children with teddy bears, grimaced, as if caught off guard when I asked if she handed any toys to Syrian children in 2015. “There was no mobilization then,” she said. “I don’t know why.”

 Twitter: @anchalvohra

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