Ukraine's legacy: shaping Europe's future approach to refugees


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Joséphine Goube
Joséphine Goube

CEO of Sistech and 2019 European Young Leader (EYL40)

Photo of This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.
This article is part of our Ukraine Initiative series.

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It is 10 years since Russia first invaded Ukraine and two since it unleashed a full-scale war on its democratic neighbour.

Ukraine’s military and civilian population have resisted with unity, inventiveness and astonishing heroism. Their courage and commitment have never been in question.

Yet Western support is flagging. Voices of doubt are holding up vital supplies, weakening Ukraine’s resistance and encouraging the aggressor.

This war is about much more than Ukraine. The Kremlin seeks to fundamentally undermine Western solidarity and democracy, to impose an authoritarian vision way beyond its borders. The security and values of all NATO and European Union states are at risk.

To revive public and political support for the Ukrainian cause, Friends of Europe has launched a campaign of multi-level engagement. We are mobilising resources to generate renewed solidary with the Ukrainian’s fight to defend their freedom and ours.

As part of the new Ukraine Initiative, we are publishing a series of articles by experts and opinion shapers. Contributors include Finnish parliamentarians Alviina AlametsäAtte Harjanne and Jakop G. Dalunde; Joséphine Goube, CEO of Sistech; Karoli Hindriks, CEO and Co-founder of Jobbatical; Dalia Grybauskaitė, former president of Lithuania; Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, former president of Croatia; Olha Stefanishyna, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister for European and Euro-Atlantic Integration; Hadja Lahbib, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs; Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, former NATO Secretary-General; Oleksandra Matviichuk, Head of the Centre for Civil Liberties and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate; Rose Gottemoeller, former Deputy Secretary General of NATO; Maryna Ovcharenko, a university student from Kharkiv, whose family house was destroyed by Russian air strikes; Kateryna Terehova, a restaurant manager-turned-volunteer helping forcibly displaced people and orphanages in Transcarpathia; Gennadiy Druzenko, Co-founder & President of Pirogov First Volunteer Mobile Hospital; Vasilisa Stepanenko, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at AP and Edward Reese, Ukrainian LGBTQ+ activist; and many others. 

Find out more here.

More than five million people have spilled over European borders since the start of the Ukrainian crisis. In contrast with the arrival of refugees from the Middle East in 2015, this time there was an absence of outbursts from Western politicians about an ‘invasion of Ukrainians’ and few ‘refugee crisis’ headlines in the press.

European Union leaders are finalising a New Pact on Migration and Asylum. One might have assumed the Pact would reflect the cooperative and composed spirit that has characterised the EU’s response to Ukrainian refugees over the past two years. Instead, something very different is brewing in Brussels.

The Pact is meant to respond to the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ which saw one million arrive in Europe in 2015. It focuses on strengthening the fight against illegal immigration and distributing asylum seekers across member states more equally.

Yet it is clear that the policies and practices under discussion are radically different to what the EU put in practice for the five million refugees that arrived from Ukraine.

The double standard is obvious. The Pact, as crafted by EU policymakers, tramples on both moral principles and common sense.

As the founder of a non-profit organisation that supports refugees, I would argue these regulations and policies ignore important lessons from our recent history. We are capable of showing all refugees the same dignified and generous treatment afforded to those fleeing war in Ukraine. Doing so is, and will, be in our own interest.

Let’s be clear: asylum is above all a right, not a choice. Most of the time it is the only option for survival

Getting over our perceived proximity

Just a month before opening its borders to Ukrainians, Poland was trying to push non-European refugees back towards Russia. Yet the new arrivals were welcome, and many have stayed in Poland.

For us who work with migrants and refugees, the situation is a classic and familiar one. Neighbouring countries wind up welcoming the great majority of displaced populations. Forced to flee their homes, people prefer to seek refuge in nearby countries. This is the case for Syrians in Turkey, Afghans in Iran and Venezuelans in Colombia.

Given this reality, we should ask ourselves if the solidarity mechanism being developed by the EU will be accepted by refugees themselves. Recent history shows us they mostly prefer to stay close to their native borders. Poland, Germany, and the Czech Republic remain the most popular destinations for Ukrainian refugees, even though they have the choice to live and work anywhere in the EU.

Refugees do not flee to places with the most generous social benefits, contrary to what many French lawmakers would like us to believe. As part of a sweeping immigration reform, those MPs recently proposed cutting social benefits for foreigners residing legally in France. Wisely, France’s highest court struck down the proposal as unconstitutional.

Let’s be clear: asylum is above all a right, not a choice. Most of the time it is the only option for survival.

It is also important to note that solidarity is greater when citizens feel a sense of proximity with the incoming refugees, whether real or perceived. I see this playing out concretely through my non-profit work at Sistech, which supports qualified job access for refugee women.

Many employers refuse to hire refugees because they ‘don’t speak the local language well’. Yet they hire Ukrainian refugees with equivalent qualifications to other refugees, even though they do not speak a word of the local language. Perceived cultural proximity makes those employers feel more inclined to hire Ukrainians,or assume it will be easier to incorporate them into their teams.

Learning from the Ukrainian experience

However, the most important difference when it comes to Ukrainian refugees was not so much the generous and supportive reaction of European citizens. It was the rapid and coordinated legislative action of the EU states. The 27 EU members agreed to grant exceptional rights to five million Ukrainians just seven years after denying them to one million who came mainly from Syria and Iraq.

Two weeks after the Russian invasion began, the European Council enforced a 2001 directive to guarantee Ukrainian refugees the right to work, move freely throughout Europe, and access health and educational services. The same directive existed in 2015 but it was not invoked.

The favourable EU response to the Ukrainian crisis recalls the spirit of the early days of Europe’s post-Second World War asylum policies. Faced with a new enemy in the shape of Putin’s Russia, EU members united to create exceptional conditions to promote that generous, dignified and almost unconditional reception for refugees.

It is too early to know the long-term results of the sudden influx of Ukrainian refugees. Much will depend on how many decide to stay and for how long.

The Ukrainian experience teaches us that welcoming refugees with dignity […] should also be treated as a long-term investment in our shared economy and our shared democracy

However, data from the past 40 years does allows us to draw some conclusions, which the Ukrainian experience has largely confirmed:

  • Initial reaction matters. The successful long-term integration of refugees depends on the support shown during the first weeks and months of their arrival.
  • Keeping asylum seekers away for too long from accessing the job market and healthcare services greatly reduces their chances of financial independence, diminishes their contribution to local economies and implies long-term costs associated with late intervention.[1]
  • The return of exiled individuals to their home country is the most unlikely out of all migrant categories. The chances are greater they will become citizens and taxpayers in their host country.[2]

    I hope we will gather as much data as possible on Ukrainian refugees as we continue to support them in their struggles and aspirations.      

    I hope that Ukrainians, made welcome in EU nations until their homeland is freed from occupation, will champion similar rights & policies for all refugees, regardless of nationality.

    Finally, I hope the data will inform future political discussions and produce smarter, more pragmatic, debates than the ones we hear in the European Parliament and Council today.

    As we consider climate change impacts and the multiple threats to democracy around the world, we should be prepared for the arrival of even more refugees in Europe.

    The Ukrainian experience teaches us that welcoming refugees with dignity and ensuring their inclusion in our societies is not only possible, but it should also be treated as a long-term investment in our shared economy and our shared democracy.

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    This article is part of Friends of Europe’s Ukraine Initiative series, find out more here. The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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