After the unthinkable happened and Russian troops marched into Ukraine, one thing quickly became clear: Hundreds of thousands, and likely millions, of civilians will be displaced by this war. As of this writing, the number of Ukrainians fleeing the country is approaching 400,000. Had the invasion been limited to the separatist regions of Donetsk and Luhansk, it may have been possible to contain refugee flows from these regions to the rest of Ukraine. That, unfortunately, is not the case. With attacks happening all over Ukraine, no part of the country can be considered particularly safe, and thus other countries need to be prepared to accept refugees.
Aiding refugees is a noble ambition, but can be effective only if it’s accompanied by a well-thought out strategy.
First, countries should be accepting only women, children, and older men. Ukraine has banned all men between the age 18 to 60 from leaving the country, as they are needed to defend their country. As much as we can empathize with the young men who are afraid of being drafted, granting them asylum would undercut Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. Furthermore, the burden of proof needs to be on the male asylum seekers to prove that they are not within this age range, as migration agencies will likely be too overwhelmed to verify ages.
Fortunately so far this does not seem to be a great problem, as Ukrainians have shown strong morale—in fact, some Ukrainian expats are returning to Ukraine to fight the invaders.
Second, we should help refugees settle down in other eastern and central European countries that border Ukraine. Poland, which adamantly refused to accept refugees during the great refugee crisis of 2015, has opened its borders to Ukrainians, and Romania says it is prepared to offer asylum to 500,000 refugees—a massive commitment by a poor country with a population of only 19 million. There may eventually be a need for other countries farther from Ukraine to take in refugees, but right now, a cost-sharing deal seems to be the best solution: Ukraine’s neighbors would welcome the refugees, but every country in the EU plus the U.S. and Canada would help pay according to their share of GDP. Ideally this coalition would include every country in NATO and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
By having refugees settle down in nearby Eastern European countries, the cost of dealing with this refugee crisis would be reduced. And, unfortunately, there is no getting around that countries have limited resources, especially in the wake of the pandemic. We also need to remember that Western Europe is still dealing with the consequences of the last wave of asylum seekers from the war in Syria (and prior to that Iraq and Afghanistan). In retrospect, had Western Europe dealt with that situation differently, more resources may have been available today to help those fleeing the war in Ukraine. On the bright side, just about everything is cheaper in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe, including food, accommodation and other basic necessities, and that makes welcoming refugees into Eastern Europe far cheaper.
Further, by keeping refugees as close to Ukraine as possible, refugee camps can double as bases for a future resistance movement, should one be necessary.
Finally, it is indisputable that Eastern European countries are by and large culturally closer to Ukraine than Western European countries. This closeness makes it easier for refugees to integrate and become part of their new countries, for however long they are there.
This brings us to my third point. We urgently need to answer the question of what is going to happen to the refugees in the long term. Normally, refugees are supposed to return to their home country after hostilities cease. In the best case scenario where Ukraine quickly repels the Russian invasion and maintains its pre-war borders, repatriating refugees should be a relatively straightforward decision, and most are likely to return voluntarily.
But imagine that Russia occupies Ukraine and is able to eliminate all armed resistance. In this scenario, Ukraine will technically speaking be at peace, albeit unfree. Should refugees be expected to return in this scenario? Should other countries continue to accept refugees from Ukraine? What if there is technically still an independent Ukraine, but one that is essentially a vassal state with a government chosen and controlled by Moscow?
What if the invasion proves a partial success, with western Ukraine remaining independent, while the east is occupied? Should Ukrainian refugees from the occupied regions be expected to return and settle into western Ukraine? Keeping in mind that in this scenario, even the independent western Ukraine would almost certainly have had its infrastructure devastated by war and may struggle to accommodate a large influx of returning citizens.
Finally, what if Ukraine is able to repel the invasion, but the war drags on for years? At that point, there would be children born of the refugees fleeing today who will have never known their parents’ home country. Many refugees will have invested considerable effort into learning their new country’s language and translating or even gaining new educational qualifications to find work, and may thus be reluctant to return to a country that, while free, does not have much left to offer them.
A drawn-out war of attrition would almost certainly destroy Ukraine’s infrastructure. If forced to return, many families may find that their neighborhoods have been flattened, or that squatters have long since taken over their abandoned homes. This happened after World War II, and contributed to the massive Jewish emigration to what now is Israel.
Essentially, Europe and the U.S. need to agree on a qualified guess as to the outcome of this war. If we assume that the war will be short and that the refugees who are now leaving Ukraine will soon be able to return, then setting up FEMA-style tent camps with basic amenities will be enough. If, on the other hand, we assume that most refugees who arrive are unlikely to ever be able to return, then in the short term refugee camps will need to have more advanced amenities (such as schools), and in the medium to long term countries that accept significant numbers of refugees will need to build homes and expand existing infrastructure to deal with the sudden population increase. The cost of this would have to be factored into the aforementioned cost-sharing agreement.
It should be noted that even normally immigration-skeptical right-wing parties in several European countries have argued in favor of welcoming refugees from Ukraine. First, let’s discuss Hungary. It might seem surprising that Viktor Orbán has announced that he will support every single sanction against Russia proposed by the European Union, and that his country is a “friendly place” for Ukrainian refugees, but a history lesson is in order: In 1988, before the fall of the Soviet Union, the then 24-year old Victor Orbán co-founded and became the first spokesperson of the anti-communist Fidesz party. The following year, at the reburial of the leaders of the 1956 Hungarian uprising, Orbán gave a speech where he demanded that the Soviet Union withdraw its troops from Hungary and that free elections be held. His wish came true the next year, and Orbán ended up withdrawing from the prestigious Oxford University where he had just began his studies, to instead return and run in the first free elections in Hungary. Under his first premiership (1998-2002), Hungary joined NATO. Whatever one may think of Viktor Orbán’s policies today, he is a man who grew up in a country that was effectively under Russian occupation, an occupation he helped end. That experience seems to be what is influencing him now.
Then there is Scandinavia. The Sweden Democrats, Sweden’s national conservative party, are in favor of helping refugees, and have actually gone further than the mainstream parties, demanding that Sweden export arms to Ukraine. The right-populist Finns Party in Finland have compared Putin’s actions to those of Nazi Germany in the lead-up to World War II, and have suggested Putin should be tried in Hague on account of this invasion.
Some may interpret this as evidence of racism—that these parties, who normally oppose asylum migration, suddenly flip-flop now that the refugees happen to be white. This, however, fundamentally misunderstands national conservatism in Scandinavia. Even long before communism and the Cold War, Russia was the main threat to Scandinavian sovereignty and freedom, in particular for Sweden and Finland. Scandinavian natcons and populists may like it when Putin says things that upset the “politically correct” establishment, but at its core, Scandinavian nationalism is deeply and fervently anti-Russian, something that stems from nearly a millennia of wars.
The “admiration” for Putin, while never justified, was in other words always very shallow. Even those Scandinavians who may wish that their leaders were the kind of tough guys who would go horseback riding while shirtless nevertheless know deep down that Russia is the enemy, now and forever. It is particularly easy for Swedes and Finns of all political stripes to identify with Ukraine, because both countries have both been in the same spot as Ukraine. The same is of course true for countries like Poland and Romania.
On a final note, the EU and NATO need to make it clear that they will only ever recognize the current Ukrainian government, and that they will, if necessary, help establish a government-in-exile that can continue to organize resistance against Russia and/or the leaders of any puppet government. They need to make it clear to Russia that, to paraphrase Irish rebel leader Padraig Pearse, “Ukraine unfree will never be at peace.” In other words: Resistance will never cease, Russian casualties will continue to pile on high even if the regular Ukrainian army is defeated, and any civilian collaborating with the Russian authorities or any future puppet state will be considered a legitimate target. Just like Afghanistan became the graveyard of the Soviet empire, Ukraine must now become the graveyard in which Russian imperialism is finally buried.