By Mark A. Grey
The outpouring of support for refugees flooding across the Ukraine border into neighboring nations stands in sharp contrast to European efforts to curtail much smaller migrations from other parts of Europe, Africa and elsewhere. The images of Europeans at train stations holding cardboard signs inviting refugees into their homes and leaving diapers and baby strollers at border crossings confirm this wave of refugees as authentic, worthy of compassion. Yet, it was just a few months ago when EU and NATO nations actively sought to prevent far smaller numbers of migrants from the Middle East, Africa and elsewhere crossing into Poland and Lithuania from Belarus. Closing down that border recognized Belarus leader Alexander Lukashenko’s cynical use of human beings as a weapon to “destabilize its democratic neighbors” as part of what the President of the European Commission called a “hybrid attack.” Again, refugees have become a “tool of war.”
Just the threat to promote mass migration stirs European angst stemming from 2015-16 when more than a million “irregular migrants”—mostly from Syria--entered the European Union. The resulting “European Migrant Crisis” saw overrun border patrols on land and sea, overwhelmed receiving communities, exhausted relief agencies, and fueled wide-ranging, often nationalistic responses that exposed cracks in the European alliance. Putin, Lukashenko and our other adversaries—and even some allies—are well aware of this. For example, despite the European Union’s 2016 €6 billion deal with Turkey to keep millions of migrants from flowing into Europe, as recently as 2020 Turkey threatened to unleash large numbers of migrants into Europe if certain economic and political demands were not met. More recently, in response to a dispute between Morocco and Spain about the former’s annexation of the Western Sahara, Rabat loosened border controls that allowed some 8,000 migrants (many from Sub-Saharan Africa) to enter the Spanish North African enclave of Ceuta. Putin has already demonstrated his willingness to control territory in Libya for the potential to weaponize human migration from Africa against our European allies.
Before invading Ukraine, Putin didn’t specifically threaten NATO and the EU with mass migration. He didn’t have to. It was just a matter of time and European leaders knew it was coming. The Migration Policy Institute estimated “that anywhere from 50,000 to 1 million or more Ukrainians could move into EU territory.” Only seven weeks into the Russian attack this initial estimate proved woefully optimistic and according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimatesas many as 4.1 million people have already fled Ukraine.
Plans for the pending Ukraine migration drawn up in Brussels were largely kept under wraps, most likely to not raise alarms among European citizens with fresh memories of the chaos during the 2015-16 crisis and in light of the more recent use of human beings as weapons deployed by Belarus. Thus, open plans to deal with Ukraine refugees risked “generating a self-fulfilling prophecy of seemingly ‘inviting’ refugees to come.” After all, Europe has gone out of its way to prevent another 2015-16 scenario by turning African nations into external border outposts, arresting volunteer migrant aid workers and not allowing migrant boats to land on European shores. More than one pundit has pointed out the double standards at work here, between the deserving and undeserving migrants. Even the relative handful of Africans living in Ukraine and trying to seek safety in neighboring countries reported discrimination at train stations and at border crossings, events decried by the African Union.
The history of forced human migration provides lessons here. Regardless of the great compassion and generosity displayed by Europeans as they line up to welcome Ukrainian refugees, 4 million is a LOT of human beings. In the short term, they all need shelter, food, clothing, beds, health care and sanitary facilities. Polish cities were overwhelmed in days. Krakow—normally with about 800,000 residents--absorbed more than 100,000 refugees and spent three-quarters of its annual budget on crisis management in first few weeks after the Russian invasion.
Estimates for the long-term costs of hosting Ukraine refugees are daunting. Denmark estimates the refugees will cost that country €268 million ($327 million) in 2022. Projections for the total cost of European reception of Ukrainian refugees have reached as high as $30 billion in the first year alone.
The long-term fate of refugees and their European hosts will hinge on how long Russia’s attack on Ukraine (and, possibly, other nations) lasts and if Ukraine citizens can return to a country with an economy and infrastructure left in ruins. It will also depend on the long-term costs of integration. Millions of people have entered a European economy still reeling from the COVID-19 Pandemic, high inflation and supply chain issues. Compassion usually only lasts until established residents find themselves competing with newcomers for jobs, affordable housing, health care and schools. Empathy usually lasts as long as there is the political will to pay for the costs of emergency management. The newcomers may share a similar culture and faith, but out of desperation they will often undermine prevailing local wages—as happened with Syrian refugees in Turkey—and its worth remembering that the EU already had about 13 million unemployed people before Putin attacked Ukraine.
Finally, refugees are flowing into nations like Hungary and Poland in which right-wing populists movements against European migration policies in the recent past have threatened European security alliances. If these nations find themselves with a disproportionate number of Ukraine refugees and the associated cultural and economic burden, will their current welcome of new migrants ultimately lead to renewed challenges to shared migration policies among EU member-states and by extension challenge our European security partner alliances? Putin is betting they do.