Dr. Marta Jaroszewicz, an assistant professor at the Centre of Migration Research at the University of Warsaw, elaborates on the current refugee crisis as the result of the war in Ukraine, the situation in the neighboring countries, and the EU refugee protection policies.

Kasia Krzyżanowska: To set out the stage, could you give some basic information on how many refugees crossed the border from Ukraine into the neighboring countries up until today [16/18 March]? How many more are expected to come in the near future, and how many of them may decide to stay in the receiving country? How ethnically diverse are the refugees?

Marta Jaroszewicz: As of March 19, 2022, 3,389,044 persons have fled Ukraine while several other millions are reported to be displaced within Ukraine. The majority of refugees came to Poland (2,050,392), Romania (527,247), Moldova (362,514), Hungary (305,518), Slovakia (245,569).  According to the UNHCR data, women and children constitute some 90 percent of those who have fled Ukraine.  Within this number, it is estimated that around 150 000 foreigners residing in Ukraine before the war have left the country.

The future is highly unpredictable since it heavily depends on the further tactics of the Russian aggressor. However, we see that the Russian military actions violate all possible humanitarian laws, rules and international security norms, and include indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas and infrastructure, strikes on protected objects such as hospitals and schools, the use of ballistic missiles and banned weapons such as cluster bombs. I’m sure everybody has heard of the siege of Mariupol where at least several thousand people have been killed in bomb attacks. Recently information on the use of supersonic weapons has appeared. As my initial talks with several refugees demonstrate, even the Western Ukrainian regions’ inhabitants, that as a rule are not under direct land military attack from the Russian forces, are afraid of air strikes and remain in constant fear due to the continuing bomb alarms. In my opinion, the absence of safe locations in terms of air strikes and constant witnessing of war crimes against civilians are the main driving force behind individual risk assessments and decisions to make often risky evacuations abroad. 

Therefore, if Russians continue their offensive, and particularly increase the number of attacks on the civilian infrastructure, we may expect much higher numbers of refugees and a rapid acceleration of their number. Currently, the UN is planning its assistance for around 4 million refugees. And this is important as the reception capacities of the neighboring countries are under severe strain and it seems that even global organizations believe we will not be able to deal with more than mentioned 4 million. We can already observe that some refugees are returning to Ukraine due to lack of assistance, in particular the absence of longer-term shelter. Secondly, what is crucial, is a further evolution of the security situation in main cities that have been encircled so far. We hear of evacuation from Mariupol, a city of 350,000 people, but in the majority of cases, the Russian army does not allow the inhabitants to evacuate to localities other than Russia or Belarus. One should remember that in the encircled capital city Kyiv there may remain still as many as 2 million inhabitants. 

Media around the world are full of pictures and accounts of the EU citizens, mainly Polish, who volunteer to help refugees, organizing private transport and places to stay. Many experts say that the Poles are this way “buying time” for the government to prepare a proper architecture to accommodate refugees. Until now, how would you assess both the governmental and regional reactions in Poland? How does it differ from the reactions from other member states neighboring Ukraine?

I would not say that the Polish reaction was dramatically dissimilar from that of Slovakia, Romania or Hungary at the operational level (in case of Hungary there are geopolitical differences however). In my opinion, the Polish reaction was perhaps quicker and more open. Already by February 25, Poland had turned all their border crossing points into pedestrian lines, also made to minimize the number documents required to cross the border. That, plus already existing Ukrainian networks (before the war as many as 1,5 million Ukrainian have been working in Poland) and strong public support means that Poland has been a priority destination for Ukrainian refugees. 

Poland had not been prepared for such a wave of refugees, but no country would be. One should remember that in 2011 it took a year for the number of Syrian refugees in Turkey to rise to one million, in case of Poland it happened in a week. Poland was not ready in terms of updated emergency plans, procedures and accommodation. All that was prepared ad hoc. I would say in the first week, apart from legal changes at the border and opening of the reception centers in the border area, the rest of the support lied on the shoulders of volunteers, civil society and ordinary citizens. They started organising free transport from the border (however, on the first or second day of war Polish railways granted Ukrainians free tickets as well) and mainly accommodation. The second and third weeks, when the number of new arrivals was increasing at an unbelievable pace, were the hardest — the system could not rely anymore on the accommodation offered by private persons. Local authorities were getting more involved as well as, the state administration by launching certain parts of the emergency management plan. This includes opening collective centers for refugees, despite an initial government announcement that there are no plans for that. The fourth week was difficult in the sense that a special law on Ukrainians fleeing the war entered into force, and the registration process started which results in huge queues in all possible central and municipal offices. Also, as many 95,000 refugee children have already been enrolled into Polish schools (data as of 22.03.2022) with no special integration program and no additional financial sources for schools in place.

What are the different scenarios for the refugees in Poland? Do you foresee that many might stay in Poland with refugee status, or rather not? Would you say that many will stay and look for a job in Poland?

As a rule, Ukrainian citizens will not be asking for a refugee status which is a long-term and cumbersome procedure, but since the temporary protection mechanism has been launched, and after a special law directed towards people fleeing from Ukraine has been adopted in Poland, they rather will be asking for this special status allowing them to stay in Poland for up 18 months and providing access to pubic healthcare and social benefits. At the same time, financial benefits envisaged are rather small and mainly comprise of 500 plus benefit [bonus for families with children distributed in Poland], so unless any new social assistance will be provided, those who want to stay longer and do not have savings or jobs in Ukraine they can do remotely, I think they will need to look for a job.

I think many will leave for other EU countries if the social benefits offered will be higher. For now, we can see that at least 200,000 left for Germany. On the other hand, many do not wish to go further west still hoping the war will end soon and they will be able to return. Others do not have any networks or social skills to move to other locations. There is also an issue of language, Polish and Ukrainian are quite similar, and it is easy to learn Polish for Ukrainians.

As you quote in the recent Center of Migration Research report, Filippo Grandi, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, stated on 28th February that the current exodus is the largest since the Balkan wars in the 1990s. However, the most recent European refugee crisis in Europe of 2015, following a war in Syria, witnessed 1.3 million applications for asylum. The solidarity mechanism finally did not work. In your opinion, how the crisis of 2015 differs from the one linked to the war in Ukraine? What kind of solutions put into place last time might be of use now?

From the European perspective, would you say that the EU, which is deeply committed to the migration issues, is reacting adequately to the current refugee crisis? Do you believe that the EU Decision of 4 March 2022 is a response that will be enough to aid the displaced persons? What are the other measures that the EU has prepared — will we observe the solidarity mechanism being enacted?

Those two questions are quite interlinked and will answer them together. In my opinion, it is good that already on March 4, the EU triggered a temporary protection scheme allowing people fleeing the war in Ukraine to ask for temporary protection for up to an initial period of one year. The crucial aspects of that decisions are: 1) allowing displaced persons to enjoy harmonized rights across the EU, 2) granting them quicker and more efficient protection mode than refugee status which requires examination of individual applications. Yet the EU directive still requires transposition into national legislation and there are some clauses that are voluntary for the member states to apply.  

I don’t think that the solidarity mechanism at the EU level, including a possible automatic reallocation scheme, will be activated, at least with the current number of refugees. However, I hear voices in favor of such a solution, which in practice could also mean better coordination between member states. So far, all the EU countries that border Ukraine announced that they will not be asking EC to launch a reallocation scheme. Firstly, as I mentioned earlier, Ukrainians already exhibit relatively high freedom of travel within the EU due to the existence of visa-free regime and the temporary protection directive. There is a huge and very active Ukrainian diaspora in the EU that already coordinates, I would call it, grass-roots re-location. Interestingly, other Eastern European diasporas also got involved in this mechanism. The Polish diaspora in Germany systematically assisting Ukrainians in finding accommodation. It means that a kind of voluntary mechanism is already ongoing. We as researchers do not have precise data and no dedicated research has started yet, but according to some estimates even as many 40% of Ukrainians treat Poland as a transit country and move further West. 

We do observe different approaches towards sanctions, notably regarding oil and gas, among some of the member states. Do you observe a similar differentiation as far as their stance towards migration is concerned? Apart from the post-Brexit UK, are there any obstacles to the relocation? How differently do member states treat refugees from Ukraine in terms of social benefits or healthcare?

It is too early to answer this question, also because, as I said earlier, some member states did not yet transpose the EU directive and did not launch new solutions yet. I expect there might be considerable variances related to the differences in average wage or minimal living standards. I guess the social benefits each country will offer may dramatically differ, however right now, is not yet clear whether Ukrainian refugees will be entitled to the same social benefits as persons with refugee status. So far, I would say I don’t see any excessive generosity taking into consideration that in case of Ukraine these are mainly women with small children who cannot enter the labor market under the same rules as refugees arriving in full families. In case of Poland, Ukrainian refugees are entitled to access healthcare and family-related social benefits, but an already said the allowances specifically directed to them are rather small. The Czech Republic has planned to pay 200 euros per month to refugees from Ukraine, however, refugees will only be able to receive payments within three months of arriving in the country. I haven’t studied in detail the situation in Hungary, but from what I know, the Hungarian government is rather building its answer on the premise that Ukrainians will enter the labor market. 

In collaboration with Karen Culver

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