THE WEEK, London, 02 November 2022
Europe is facing a growing Ukrainian refugee crisis this winter as countries struggle to house and pay for the almost eight million refugees registered across the continent.
Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine re-shaped the map of Europe, led to tens of thousands of deaths and sparked an energy and economic crisis that is being felt around the world.
It has also “fuelled the largest European refugee crisis since World War II”, said Al Jazeera, with 7.7 million refugees from Ukraine registered across Europe since the war began, according to the United Nations.
The numbers and impact on countries that have rushed to welcome those fleeing the war has far exceeded that of the last migrant crisis in 2015-16, with some EU member states like Poland and Germany now reportedly close to breaking point.
What’s happened to the refugees so far?
Seven months on from the invasion, “the 27 EU countries have accommodated these refugees to an extent they claimed impossible during the Syrian migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016”, said The Washington Post, “but temporary protection has been far from a golden ticket.”
“Many refugees have had to move from place to place and have yet to secure employment. Within a refugee population consisting primarily of women and children, mothers with young kids say it’s been especially hard to find time to seek job interviews or enrol in language lessons,” said the paper.
As with the migrant crisis of 2015-16, the problem has been exacerbated by the uneven distribution of refugees across the EU.
“The bloc has bickered for years over a fair refugee distribution scheme,” said DW, comparing Poland and Germany’s efforts to each host more than one million people from Ukraine with France – the EU's second-largest member in terms of population and GDP – which has taken in a little more than 100,000.
As Russia intensifies its attacks on Ukrainian power stations, leaving many without heat and electricity ahead of the winter, European leaders are bracing themselves for a new wave of refugees that will put further strain on already stretched resources and services.
How are the countries coping?
In some European countries “the system is close to breaking point”, said The Telegraph’s Europe editor James Crisp.
Poland, which has officially registered more than 1.4 million Ukrainians, is on the front line of the crisis, and while “there is huge support for Ukraine in the country, the cost-of-living crisis is beginning to take its toll on the economy,” said Crisp.
It is a similar story in Germany, where more than a million Ukrainians have arrived since the start of the war, and where municipalities are warning they cannot take any more.
Housing is the main problem but organising living space “is only the beginning of a long and expensive resettlement process” that involves integrating newcomers while providing adequate education and health care, said DW.
In the UK, council leaders have warned of a looming homelessness crisis among Ukrainian refugees. Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, more than 100,000 people are guests of British families, but the end of their six-month stays is approaching and many are finding there is nowhere for them to go.
“The government plan was for Ukrainians to either rent their own homes or ‘rematch’ with other hosts,” said The Guardian, “but local authorities responsible for overseeing the scheme say they are struggling to find people to take in the refugees.” One Leicestershire local authority, for example, found that only 10% of people who had expressed an interest in hosting back in spring were now willing to help with rematching.
In Ireland, which has announced it will cost €2.5 billion to care for 100,000 Ukrainian refugees next year, the government has been accused of failing to prepare for the huge number of Ukrainians expected to arrive.
Opposition Sinn Fein Senator Lynn Boylan said a coordinated response across government is urgently needed.
“We need the Minister for Housing to be on board, the Minister for Education, Minister for Health, so that we can put in place wraparound services,” she told the Irish Mirror.
What impact will the exodus have in Ukraine?
While European countries are feeling the strain of hosting so many refugees, for Ukraine the mass exodus of citizens represents an existential threat to its post-war recovery.
While men aged between 18 and 60 are currently barred from leaving the country, many are expected to join their families abroad once the ban is lifted. Of these a significant proportion will never return.
This “is indicative of Ukraine’s dire demographic crisis, which began decades before the war,” said Al Jazeera.
At the dawn of the country’s independence in 1991, the population of Ukraine was 52 million. The last census, taken in 2001, put the official figure at 43 million but, following years of conflict and the annexation of Crimea and other breakaway regions by Russia, the actual number is widely assumed to be much lower.
Coming on the back of the emigration of Ukrainian workers to the EU in recent years, an ageing population and one of the world’s lowest birth rates, the refugee crisis will further exacerbate the post-war economic recovery, experts say.
“The return of refugees en masse is correlated to the war situation and, in the long term, to the strategy of economic development,” Aleksey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.
“Otherwise, a demographic crisis awaits Ukraine – a population of less than 30 million, 10 million of whom are retired,” he warned.