Exhausted and depleted, Ukraine’s refugees have endured hell since the Russian invasion of their country in February 2022.
According to the United Nations, at least 12 million people have fled their homes since the war began—over 5 million having gone to other countries, leaving 7 million displaced within Ukraine. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of refugees have made the reverse trek back to their home countries to relatively safe cities like Kyiv.
These traumatized people have streamed out of war-torn Ukraine into European countries, mainly to Poland, escaping the daily thunder of Russian bombardment. Mostly women and children, they bring heart-wrenching stories of death, destruction, and endless days lived in underground railways, basements of theaters, and enduring dangerous passage across borders as civilian targets are hit by Russian troops and weapons destined to bomb Ukraine into submission.
It remains a staggering refugee crisis for the European continent, the worst in decades, the outcome of which may determine the future of Europe and democracy. Europe’s cities and towns are filled to the brim with Ukrainians in need of immediate medical and psychological counseling, housing for anxious parents, frightened children, frail elderly people, and many without documents or physical belongings—only mental and physical scars from war.
Many ask if Europe can continue to manage the refugee crisis—providing immediate assistance for refugees and middle and longer-term assistance. Patience is wearing thin as the war drags on. Internal pressures on governments are increasing as citizens worry about resources for their own populations.
Refugee crises have stages, each with its own problems. If part of Vladimir Putin’s agenda has been to cleanse Ukraine and impose a massive refugee crisis on Europe as part of an overall de-stabilization of the West, how Europe responds may impact the future of Putin and his regime. Europe knows that everyone is watching how it handles this refugee crisis.
The most important steps taken thus far is that together the European Union has agreed to trigger a never-before used Temporary Protection Directive granting temporary protection for Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught. The directive was approved in 2001 after the wars in Yugoslavia and Bosna but never administered. Under the directive, Ukrainian refugees will be given residence permits to stay inside the European bloc for at least one year, a period that will be automatically extended for a further year and could be renewed for as long as three years. Ukrainian refugees and their relatives will have access to education, health, employment, and housing. The protection can be granted by any E.U. country, not only by the first country reached by the refugee.
Europe is showing uncharacteristic flexibility for those who fled their homes without their passports or any other means of personal identification. The Commission says member states can relax border controls and allow them to enter their territory so they can reach a safe location, where the ID checks will be carried out. Displaced Ukrainians can bring their personal belongings without being subject to traditional customs duties. And recently the U.K. created a new legal arrangement to allow unaccompanied teenagers to be granted refugee status.
But temporary protection does not automatically mean that a person is granted asylum. Those under the special protection regulations—can lodge an asylum application at any time during their stay. Inevitably there will be backlogs of cases just as America’s refugee crisis got bogged down on asylum cases.
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Europe is still struggling to master the art of avoiding legal bureaucratic traps so people do not remain in limbo. Some of the smaller, poorer countries like Moldovia and Slovakia do not have much spare capacity. Many Ukrainians complain about the paperwork and difficulties, especially getting visas to England. Those that want to join relatives in America will face enormous red tape and U.S. government bureaucracy for establishing humanitarian parole or asylum. The Biden Administration’s offer to take 100,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what European nations are providing. The U.S. assistance will help, but it seems designed to predict more Ukrainians going home to re-build and that could be still months away.
Housing is a major issue. It is one thing for families to take in refugees for weeks or for people to book hotels. But human beings need space and a roof over their head. Europe needs to avoid tent cities or refugee camps and that means temporary construction in a time of supply chain limits on wood and materials. There will need to be a European housing “czar,” just to look at living conditions.
Education is another big concern. Some Ukrainian students are getting online help or being invited into classrooms in host countries. With summer here, refugee children need spaces to play and there are limits to how much room any country can provide. For the countries that border Ukraine—Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, the refugee numbers are matching the population of whole cities. At some point services might run out and establishing a European education system to handle schooling will grow critical. Most non-profits and humanitarian organizations will not provide daily education to refugees.
Then there are jobs. If the war drags on, the longer-term issues will arise as refugees seek employment. Identifying and matching skills to jobs is a huge undertaking. Europe will need to improve its digital processing of Ukrainians and ensure the separation of Ukrainian refugees from other non-European refugees still seeking work on the Continent. Germany has proven to be the most adept at the technological processing facilities for refugees.
Europe will also need to figure out how to leverage the Ukrainian diaspora to help with longer-term housing, medical care, and employment. They can be a powerful force to help with integration into European or American or Canadian society.
Those that end up staying in Europe will need to feel part of the fabric of the country—not guests but full citizens, immersed in the day-to-day life. Those that want to go home will need help getting there and re-building cities flattened by the Russians. And there will be ongoing trauma and fear that Russia might strike again. Europe and the U.S. will need to stay united to protect the Ukrainian government and democracy in their countries.
As the humanitarian situation in the eastern part of Ukraine worsens, the challenge for each human being grown more complex. But if European solidarity, bolstered by public engagement, can remain, there is reason to hope.
Let’s pray that this consent of the willing will be a guiding light in the days ahead and that those who want to go back to Ukraine, will have that option, and those who want to live in Europe will find those doors open and the critical parts of a full life granted.