Much has changed since the publication of the Fall 2021 issue of the Wilson Quarterly, “Humanity in Motion.” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 has led within a matter of weeks to the largest migrations in Europe since the Second World War, displacing more than 10 million Ukrainians, including over 4 million who fled to neighboring countries, and almost 7 million who are internally displaced. By some estimates, a prolonged conflict could result in one-fourth of the pre-war population of Ukraine (43.3 million) seeking refuge abroad, making the Russia-Ukraine war one of the largest humanitarian disasters since the partition of India in 1947.
The analytical framework I outlined in “Humanity in Motion” can help us to understand the policy response of the European Union, which is marked by a high degree of unity and willingness of member states to share responsibility for the humanitarian emergency and take on the burden of caring for millions of Ukrainians. The European response to the Ukrainian exodus stands in sharp contrast to EU policies during the 2015-16 refugee crisis when member-states could not agree on a common policy and states in Eastern Europe—the so-called Visegrad group led by the Poles—adamantly refused to host asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia.
Recall from Humanity in Motion that migration policy is a multi-dimensional and multi-level game. Unlike the 2015-16 crisis, which brought asylum seekers from the Middle East (primarily Syria) and South Asia (Afghanistan), but also from sub-Saharan Africa, this conflict is bringing “refugees” from a neighboring European country and the geopolitical stakes for Europe (EU and NATO) are much higher than they were in 2015-16. The security implications of a confrontation with Russia alone are enough to warrant a collective response. For the first time since it was adopted in 2001, the EU has resorted to its Temporary Protection Directive, to grant Ukrainian refugees rights of residence, immediate access to social services, and to the labor market.
In this case, refugee policy is being made at the EU level, while implementation is playing out at the state and local level. Looking at the policymaking diamond covered in the Wilson Quarterly (WQ), which depicts tradeoffs between markets/economics, rights, culture, and security, we can see first that security considerations are more important than other policy dimensions at this stage in the crisis. A second striking feature of the EU response is how quickly public opinion shifted in favor of welcoming Ukrainians. This is in sharp contrast to the often xenophobic reactions among European publics in 2015-16. It turns out that not just geographical but cultural proximity matters, and normally xenophobic right-wing politicians across Europe have been quick to point out that Ukrainians are “civilizationally” compatible with Europeans, a reference to Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Humanitarian policies, like immigration and refugee policy in general, are discriminatory with a strong ethnic and cultural bias. Moreover, a large majority of those fleeing the conflict are women and children, not young, single men traveling alone as was the case in 2015-16. Gender and family clearly play a role in the welcome of the first waves of Ukrainian refugees, as most Ukrainian men are required to stay home to join the fight against the Russian invaders.
But Ukrainians fleeing the conflict are displaced people and asylum seekers, not refugees. Formal refugee status requires individual adjudication under the 1951 Geneva Convention using the standard of a “well-founded fear of persecution.” As pointed out in the WQ, refugee status normally is not granted de jure to entire groups of people, based on ethnicity or nationality. However, de facto many ethnic and national groups receive blanket protection in different regions of the world—whether Somalis and Sudanese in Kenya and Uganda, Afghans in Pakistan, Rohingya in Bangladesh, Syrians in Lebanon and Jordan, or Venezuelans in Colombia. The justifications for granting temporary protection to such large groups are varied, but there is almost always an ethnic and geographical (neighborhood) component to such policies, supplemented by direct aid from wealthy countries who want to contain the conflict and prevent mass migrations to the “western” world. Ukrainians are seen by the EU much in the same light as refugees during the cold war (pre-1989) because they are fleeing an invasion and an oppressive (if not communist) regime and hence deserving of immediate protection, which prompts the granting of a package of rights, including the right to settle.
Finally, it is important to note that most of the Ukrainians have means—they are educated, have skills, often including good knowledge of other languages, and many have deep family ties in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. Their socio-economic profile, human and social capital, will increase the chances for quick integration, providing a market logic to the shift in policy—and the warm welcome. Many Ukrainians spend only one or two nights in welcome centers and camps in border states before moving on to join family elsewhere in Europe, Canada, and the U.S. They are not an immediate and obvious burden, economically or otherwise, for the societies that are hosting them. The one exception is Moldova, which because of proximity to the conflict—much like Lebanon in the Middle East—is a first country of refuge. That said, Poland remains the first (and largest) country of refuge for most Ukrainians with Germany a close second. They are helped by the Ukrainian diaspora in Europe and North America, which is organized and lobbying to open “western” societies and economies to their co-ethnics. As of this writing, the one glaring exception to the blanket welcome of Ukrainians in Europe is the U.K., where Boris Johnson’s Tory government is dragging its feet in granting visas and residence permits to Ukrainian refugees, because of the political overhang of Brexit and fear of the electoral consequences of another wave of East European migrants. Likewise, Ukrainians desperate to flee to the U.S. face a complicated application process (red tape), although the Biden administration has pledged to accept up to 100,000 Ukrainian refugees. Canada, on the other hand, has put in a place a fast-track policy for Ukrainians.
Support for this policy among western publics will depend on how long the conflict lasts, how deep the damage is to Ukrainian society, whether return is possible, how governments manage the flows, and the efficiency of the reception of Ukrainian refugees going forward. One thing is clear from the scholarship on migration: if the rights of Ukrainians are not respected, affording them a chance to get on their feet, put their lives back together, and make a home in their adoptive countries—even if only temporarily—this will weaken western solidarity, lead to slower integration, and potentially to another nativist and xenophobic backlash. Massive movements of people, to echo the language of the UN Global Compact on Refugees, must be legal and orderly, which places great pressure on the governments of the states involved to get the policies right from the beginning. The EU is off to a good start in dealing with this humanitarian emergency, and it will be up to the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., not to mention the U.N. and the international community, to follow suit.
James F. Hollifield is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center. He is also the Ora Nixon Arnold Professor of International Political Economy, Director of the John G. Tower Center for Public Policy and International Affairs at SMU, and a Fellow of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris (2021-22).
Cover photo: Millions of refugees from the war-torn Ukraine are fleeing to Europe. Mother and child room at Lviv Railway Station. Photo by Sodel Vladyslav / Shutterstock.