Why are Ukrainian refugees welcomed in Central and Eastern Europe?

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The Russian invasion of Ukraine means that countries in Central and Eastern Europe are facing an unprecedented number of refugees crossing their borders. Poland, for instance, received around 100,000 refugees in the previous 30 years and then over 2 million in the first three weeks of the conflict with a huge wave of popular support for refugees including hundreds of thousands of Polish citizens opening their homes to Ukrainian refugees. This level of support is evident across Central and Eastern Europe and raises the question of what has changed and why are responses to Ukrainian refugees so different from those to refugees from other war torn countries such as Afghanistan and Syria?

Back in 2015, Central and Eastern European governments strongly opposed the European Commission’s plans to relocate asylum applicants throughout the EU and vowed to keep their borders closed to refugees, which caused a major rift within the EU. These same governments are now welcoming refugees from Ukraine as manifested in a wave of grassroot volunteer humanitarian efforts and governmental support for displaced Ukrainians. This is especially visible in the unanimous vote of EU members to activate the Temporary Protection Directive for the very first time since it was agreed in 2001.

The difference in attitudes towards refugees from different parts of the world and those from Ukraine has been attributed to an “inherent racism” in Central and Eastern Europe. There is certainly some truth in this argument, as research shows that race and racism do play a role in explaining attitudes to immigration. But this is not, in any way, a unique feature of Central and Eastern Europe and the connection can be found in most countries. But, more than this, arguments about racism neglect five other relevant factors.

First is the partial integration of Ukraine into the citizenship and geopolitical regimes that determine the freedom of movement within Europe. Ukraine is a signatory to the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP) and the 2014 EU-Ukraine Association Agreement. For instance, unlike third-country nationals, Ukrainian citizens were granted visa-free travel to the Schengen Area in 2017 and were on the path to integration into the European labour market. These agreements legally produce different categories of migrants.

Second, examining today´s situation in Central and Eastern Europe without trying to understand the region’s historical and geopolitical complexity is a futile exercise. Being at the receiving end of Soviet/Russian imperialism for most of the last century, many Central and Eastern European countries have viewed Russia as an existential threat. Many people in Central and Eastern Europe still have memories of living under the Soviet sphere of influence and now fear that their borders might be under threat again. After the invasion of Ukraine, these worries appear grounded in reason and can mobilize empathy towards Ukrainians as many across the region think, to put it bluntly, “we could be next”.

Third, research shows that interpersonal contact is an effective way to reduce prejudice between majority and minority group members. There is a sense of familiarity that people in Central and Eastern Europe feel towards Ukrainians, due to their cultural and historical connections linked not least to large Ukrainian diasporas in the region. Since the Soviet Union’s disintegration, Ukrainians have been the largest minority in many Central and Eastern European countries. Moreover, the general experience with Ukrainian immigration has been mostly positive and many people have grown up with second-generation Ukrainians as part of their communities.

Fourth, a key driver of anti-immigrant attitudes is threat perception. Fears can take the form of concerns about security, terrorism or potential economic and fiscal burdens. Typically, young males are perceived to pose security and cultural threats. Since men aged 18 to 60 have been banned from leaving, Ukrainian refugee flows are predominantly women and children who are much less likely to trigger these security concerns.

A final factor is proximity. In the past, arguments against hosting refugees centred on claims that it is not Europe´s responsibility to accept refugees from far away countries. Irrespective of their merit, such arguments clearly cannot be applied to a country that many Central and Eastern European countries immediately border.

Clearly, many of the factors identified by social scientists as driving anti-immigration attitudes – unfamiliarity, security concerns, “non-deservingness” – simply do not apply to the current case of Ukrainian refugees. On the other hand, factors traditionally associated with welcoming attitudes, such as cultural similarity and closeness to the other group, as well as empathy based on the degree of need, are present. The conflict appears to be quite straightforward and understandable for a wider audience whereas those in former Yugoslavia, Syria or Afghanistan could seem more complex and intractable. For the Ukraine conflict, it is easy to pick a side and point to the aggressor and the victim, which is a powerful explanation for this huge wave of support for refugees across Central and Eastern Europe.

Although it is hard to make predictions at the moment, it seems highly likely that a large part of Ukrainian refugees will stay in the region for a longer period of time. It is thus crucial to ensure that the welcoming attitude towards Ukrainians facilitates their integration. Proper integration in housing, involvement of children in education and the recognition of qualifications for entry into the labour market is a prerequisite for full participation of refugees in these societies. This, in turn, can bring social and economic benefits to the entire Central and Eastern European region in the long run.