The Ukrainian Exodus

 A Ukrainian child fleeing the country, Volytsia, Ukraine, February 2022. Natalie Thomas / Reuters
A Ukrainian child fleeing the country, Volytsia, Ukraine, February 2022. Natalie Thomas / Reuters

Russian forces continue to grind through Ukraine, shelling cities and killing civilians in the thousands. Nearly four million Ukrainians have fled for Poland, Slovakia, and other neighboring countries. The speed and scale of the Ukrainian exodus makes it the biggest and fastest displacement of people in Europe since World War II. And it has upended many assumptions about refugees, including the view that forced displacement is a challenge contained to the “global South”.

Europe now hosts more refugees than any other region in the world. The oft-cited UN figure that 85 percent of the world’s refugees are in low- and middle-income countries no longer holds. The Ukraine crisis reveals that recent dislocations of people—for instance, the waves of refugees predominantly from the Middle East who reached Europe in 2015 and 2016 and the record numbers of asylum seekers from Central America arriving at the U.S. border in the past few years—are not an aberration. Forced displacement will be a defining challenge of the twenty-first century everywhere. That reality has profound implications for how Europe aids refugees. The continent can no longer act just as a distant donor of humanitarian and development aid; now, it must develop the capacity to welcome large numbers of refugees, no matter where they are from.

The European Union’s process for dealing with asylum seekers has long been unfit for purpose. Its so-called Dublin system allocates primary responsibility for refugees to the first country they arrive in. This requirement has historically placed disproportionate responsibility on frontline Mediterranean states such as Greece and Italy. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia were the main countries responsible for blocking reform of the Dublin system in 2016. Now that they are in the eye of the storm, and their publics are demonstrating extraordinary acts of solidarity with Ukrainian refugees, these eastern European countries may be willing to embrace reform. The EU has temporarily provided a limited form of sanctuary for people arriving in Europe during a mass influx, allowing refugees from Ukraine to remain for at least three years. Even in the United Kingdom, which has lurched toward ever more draconian asylum policies in the wake of its departure from the European Union, tens of thousands of people have offered their homes to Ukrainian refugees and pushed the government to soften its initially hard-line visa restrictions for them.

These acts of generosity and solidarity offer an opportunity for European leaders to push refugee policies in a fairer direction, one that can better accommodate people coming from outside Europe, as well. Six years ago, millions of refugees arrived in Europe from Syria and other war-torn countries. The initial welcome they received gave way to a harsh backlash and rising nationalism. That need not happen again.


The scenes of everyday humanitarianism taking place across Europe should be celebrated. Empty strollers left for arriving mothers at a railway station in Poland, people driving across the continent to offer free rides to refugee families, and drop-off donation points in almost every European city—solidarity with the plight of Ukrainians has been unprecedented. But these scenes stand in contrast to how Europeans have responded to other refugees in recent years. African asylum seekers traveling across the Mediterranean continue to brave the risk of drowning only to face detention and deportation. Ukrainians have been welcomed with open arms in Poland, whose border guards attacked refugees from the Middle East when they tried to cross from Belarus last year.

The discrepancy in the treatment of refugee populations is contrary to the spirit of international refugee law, which upholds the right of refugees to seek asylum anywhere in the world without discrimination. It also points to a more insidious problem. The American writer Moustafa Bayoumi, among other observers, has described European media coverage of the Ukraine war as racist, privileging the plight of white, Christian refugees over those fleeing persecution and war in Africa and the Middle East. This selective empathy is hardly a new phenomenon. At the end of the Cold War, critics decried the “myth of difference” implicit in Western policies to refugees and asylum seekers: western European and North American countries were happy to take in people fleeing from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact countries but less interested in accepting those from the countries of the global South.

This hypocritical approach to refugees is not only the province of the West. Countries such as Kenya have embraced refugees from South Sudan, for instance, while treating those from Somalia with hostility. The challenge lies in encouraging countries to embrace a more generous, universal approach to refugees. On occasion, the acceptance of particular groups can help broaden refugee policy. The United States’ experience of receiving hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975 contributed to its adoption of the 1980 Refugee Act, which created a systematic procedure for admitting refugees and opened the door wider for other groups, such as those fleeing the Iranian Revolution and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Europe’s generally positive experience of protecting Bosnian and Kosovar refugees in the 1990s led to progressive innovations in European asylum policy, such as the Temporary Protection Directive, which lets governments grant displaced persons certain rights and the ability to stay in Europe for a limited period of time. The Ukraine crisis led the EU to  trigger this directive for the first time since its creation in 2001.

Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, spoke hopefully when he said in early March that solidarity could be “the silver lining of this crisis, that Europe understands that any country can become the recipient of large numbers of refugees and need the help of others”. But it is not magical thinking to imagine that the influx of Ukrainian refugees could lead European countries to establish a fairer and more comprehensive asylum system. Newly arrived refugees and their diasporas could lobby for more progressive policies. Media narratives could warm to the plight of refugees and encourage political leaders to seize the moment to push new legislation. Opportunities for interactions between citizens and refugees may change old attitudes among the public. Indeed, the crisis may have already dragged Europe back from the precipice of ending asylum altogether, reminding countries that had adopted restrictive policies, such as Denmark and the United Kingdom, that their publics still want to give sanctuary to those in need.

The opposite, however, could also be true. Solidarity with Ukrainians could be short-lived. Across Latin America, initial solidarity with the region’s more than four million Venezuelan refugees ebbed in 2019 as the realities of competition for employment and public services began to bite. Europe has seen past examples of backlash against eastern European migrant workers; the French fretted about an invasion of “Polish plumbers” in 2004 and the United Kingdom refused to extend the right of freedom of movement to Bulgarian and Romanian workers after their countries joined the EU in 2007. The British politicians who campaigned successfully for Brexit in 2016 often invoked the specter of eastern European migrants squeezing out British workers. European societies may be welcoming Ukrainian refugees now, but a backlash always looms around the corner.


Millions have already left Ukraine, and that number will keep climbing as the war persists. If Kyiv falls, the ensuing exodus may be enormous, with millions more crossing the border and remaining indefinitely in Europe. Such an outcome could lead to between seven and 15 million people leaving Ukraine. Even in the most optimistic scenario—a negotiated peace or an outright Ukrainian victory—it will be a long time before most of the millions of Ukrainians already elsewhere in Europe will be willing and able to return home. The weight of such staggering numbers alone, however, will not dictate policy changes. Europe’s political leaders will.

Europe has so far responded well to the influx of Ukrainians, but it needs to start making long-term plans beyond this emergency phase. Aiding the enormous numbers of people forced to flee Ukraine will require all 27 member states of the EU to step up; Europe cannot simply free-ride on the likes of Poland, which currently hosts around 60 percent of Ukrainian refugees. European countries will need to commit both to receiving refugees and to funding their care.

First, EU leaders should devise a relocation scheme that distributes refugees equitably across the continent, matching refugees’ destination preferences with the capacities of receiving regions. In September 2016, the EU agreed to a relocation scheme for 160,000 Syrian refugees to be shifted around the continent from Italy and Greece. However, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, among others, prevented it from being fully implemented, insisting that the program violated their national sovereignty. That obstinacy appears all the more shortsighted now as millions of Ukrainians pour into eastern Europe.

An Iraqi child near the Polish-Belarussian border in the Grodno region of Belarus, November 2021. Kacper Pempel / Reuters
An Iraqi child near the Polish-Belarussian border in the Grodno region of Belarus, November 2021. Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Second, EU countries will need to share the financial burdens of such initiatives in order to meet the vast costs of delivering the necessary public services. These states should contribute to broader refugee settlement efforts on the basis of their ability to pay, while leaders in Brussels and across Europe should also raise funding from international financial institutions and from countries outside Europe—especially the United States, which has an interest in averting the growth of populist nationalism in eastern Europe.

These resources should be directed both to refugees and the residents of receiving regions in order to win long-term support for refugee integration policies. Such investment can create better housing, schools, hospitals, and jobs that benefit residents and refugees alike. In that sense, Europe needs to take a leaf out of the playbook usually prescribed to low- and middle-income counties in Africa and Latin America when they take on refugees: to create shared development-based opportunities for refugees and hosts, such as those in place in Colombia and Uganda that provide large numbers of refugees the opportunity to work.

Several of the main refugee-hosting countries in eastern Europe have high unemployment, strong nationalist parties, and economies that will be adversely affected by both the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Avoiding polarization and a backlash requires their citizens and governments to perceive refugees as a benefit rather than a burden. Indeed, research on public attitudes toward refugees in Europe suggests that the perception that they contribute positively to the economy is key to their acceptance. Moldova—a country of just 3.5 million people that is now hosting nearly 400,000 Ukrainians—suffers from high youth unemployment, has lost the ten percent of its trade that was with Russia and Ukraine, and is in a precarious strategic position sitting outside of NATO and the EU. To continue offering sanctuary to refugees, it will need the United States and the rest of the international community to help demonstrate through aid and investment that refugees can be an economic boon.

Germany’s relatively successful experience of integrating the one million Syrians who arrived in the mid-2010s is a helpful guide. Berlin invested massively in vocational education, language training, and job creation schemes. Within five years, more than half of the working-age asylum seekers who had arrived since 2013 were employed. Of course, the arrival of so many newcomers did provoke a backlash, propelling the far-right, anti-immigrant party Alternative for Germany. Tellingly, the areas of Germany that were most susceptible to the AfD’s brand of populist nationalism were not those that experienced the highest levels of immigration but those affected by deindustrialization and high levels of structural unemployment, such as the region of Lower Saxony. To head off nativist upswellings of this kind, governments should invest in all regions, not just the ones that will host large numbers of refugees.


A more fundamental transformation remains possible. European leaders could translate this moment of solidarity into lasting legal and policy change at a pan-European level. The refugee crisis of 2015–16 led to the broad recognition that the EU’s framework for dealing with migrants was fundamentally broken, but European countries struggled to determine what framework should replace it.

They found a compromise solution in the European Commission’s New Pact on Migration and Asylum, released in 2020. The agreement offered wide-ranging recommendations for reforms, including for the European Council to consider overhauling the Dublin system. The pact also called for the “fair sharing of responsibility and solidarity”, urging member states to create a system of “flexible contributions” when it comes to receiving refugees and paying for their care. Although vague, some of these ideas offer a basis for the EU to reconsider how its member states share the responsibility for refugees.

The EU still needs to devise policies for mass influxes of the sort that occurred in 2015 and 2016 and is happening now. The Temporary Protection Directive does offer a blueprint for how countries should treat refugees and it removes the burden on member states of determining the legal status of each individual refugee. But it does not specify how European countries should share the responsibilities of coping with a mass influx. Establishing a clearer framework for responsibility sharing would also enable politicians to better defend their own commitments to refugees, reminding their populations that all countries are taking in their fair share of people in need.

At the same time, Europe needs new mechanisms for responding to the spontaneous arrival of asylum seekers because until the current crisis, the only viable route for most refugees to reach Europe was through the use of criminal smuggling networks. And Europe should urgently update how it supports refugees in other parts of the world, including through an EU-wide resettlement scheme and more coherent policies relating to humanitarian and development financing for refugee-hosting countries outside the EU.

The Ukraine crisis is a rare chance for Europe to create refugee policies fit for the twenty-first century. The continent’s leaders failed to capitalize on the public solidarity toward refugees in the second half of 2015. They cannot afford to miss that opportunity again. Both Ukraine’s refugees and the future of asylum in Europe depend on it.

Alexander Betts is Professor of Forced Migration and International Affairs at the University of Oxford and author of The Wealth of Refugees: How Displaced People Can Build Economies.

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