STRATEGIC ASSESSMENT-Moscow. Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has provoked what many experts consider the most significant displacement of people in Europe since the Second World War. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) recorded over eight million Ukrainian refugees across Europe – representing about 20 percent of the country’s pre-war population – and nearly five million have applied for temporary protection. Women and children comprise 90 percent of those who have fled the country, according to UNHCR.
Most registered Ukrainian refugees – over 2.8 million – reside in Russia. Many of these refugees have been subjected to forced transfers and a “filtration” process with reports indicating credible evidence of war crimes, such as torture and executions. Poland hosts the second-most registered refugees at over 1.5 million, while another one million are registered in Germany. In the initial days of the 2022 invasion, Ukrainian refugees were met with an outpouring of support from European countries, including Europe’s Ukrainian diaspora, the EU’s Temporary Protection regime, and new programs created to enable citizens to become host families. The EU has also removed many barriers that refugees typically face for those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine: offering residency rights, work permits, and access to health care, schooling, housing, and other services. Europe’s welcoming response to Ukrainian refugees starkly contrasts with the often vitriolic discourse around refugees from the Global South, particularly those from Syria, Afghanistan, and Africa – an issue that has galvanized support for many far-right populist parties. Thanks to their temporary protection status, many Ukrainian refugees are afforded rights that other asylum seekers have not received, creating a tangible divide in how different refugee communities are treated in Europe and giving rise to accusations of xenophobia and racism.
Yet fissures in the support are beginning to manifest and become more pronounced now that the war has reached its one-year anniversary. Housing shortages across Europe have created pressure on governments trying to accommodate refugees. Scotland temporarily paused its sponsorship program for Ukrainian refugees due to a lack of accommodations, while the U.K. has significantly reduced funding for its Homes for Ukraine scheme, prompting a looming homelessness crisis in the country. To mitigate these shortages, some governments have turned to atypical measures. Estonia and Scotland have leased cruise ships from an Estonian shipping company to temporarily house thousands of Ukrainians. The Netherlands is utilizing cruise ships to temporarily house at least 1,500 refugees for three months, and France has utilized a ferry to provide temporary housing to 800 Ukrainians. Such solutions have been met with skepticism, as some advocates and politicians cite concerns about space, funding, hygiene, and long-term viability of such measures.
Civil society organizations, volunteers, and municipal governments have also raised concerns about burnout as well as national governments’ lack of long-term resources and plans to handle protracted displacement. Some on the frontlines providing resources to refugees also say overall donations and support have diminished. High inflation and energy costs in Europe have compounded these challenges, hinting at growing donor fatigue and threatening to fracture public and political solidarity. Increased living costs could also further strain public support and the allocation of finite resources for refugees as the war continues.
Such economic constraints may also offer fertile ground for Russian propaganda and pro-Putin stances to take hold, potentially allowing the politics of resentment and hostility toward refugees to take hold. While the Institute for Strategic Dialogue found that disinformation targeting European audiences often portrays refugees as ungrateful, parasitic, prone to violence, and dangerous, another study backed by the European Parliament and released by the European Policy Center in November found these campaigns had “not successfully polarized or shape the discourse so far.” Nonetheless, some analysts and political leaders blamed Russian propaganda as the impetus for demonstrations in Europe last fall. Approximately 70,000 protestors turned out in the Czech Republic over the rising cost of living, demanding the government’s resignation, criticizing the country’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict, and calling for an end to sanctions on Russia. Shortly thereafter, thousands of demonstrators in Germany gathered in Berlin to urge the government to cease support to Ukraine and make peace with Russia. With anxieties continuing to mount over the cost of living, and with no end in sight to the conflict, Europe could see more protests spurred by these disinformation campaigns – with increased animus directed at refugees in particular.
Disinformation campaigns directed at Ukrainian refugees could also lead to acts of hostility toward those in Europe and their support structures. A fire that broke out at a planned accommodation center for Ukrainian refugees in Ireland this November drew concerns that it may have been a deliberate act of aggression. Such acts could become more frequent if anti-Ukrainian narratives take hold and support continues to wane. Moreover, with several upcoming European parliamentary elections in 2023, including in Poland, Czech Republic, and Estonia, such narratives risk going mainstream if anti-immigrant political parties capitalize on them to bolster support.
Although support for Ukrainian refugees remains high in many countries, it show signs of wavering in others. Willingness to take in these refugees dipped in all ten European countries surveyed for an Ipsos poll, with both German and Belgian support decreasing by 14 percent since the initial weeks of the invasion. The number of Polish respondents personally involved in providing material aid to Ukrainian families fell from over 60 percent in March 2022 to 40 percent in September, according to another Ipsos poll. Waning support in Poland, which hosts the most Ukrainian refugees, could potentially be a harbinger of a wider trend. Despite the ebb and flow of public support, refugee flows from Ukraine show no sign of abating. According to an estimate by the International Centre for Migration Policy, EU countries should prepare to receive up to four million more Ukrainian refugees in 2023. As the war and subsequent refugee flow continue, European leaders must address long-term accommodation issues, such as housing, while maintaining public support for Ukrainians’ access to social benefits and labor markets. Failure to do so will likely not only have political consequences across Europe but will impact the millions of vulnerable Ukrainians taking refuge across the continent (TSC).