PARIS – Olga Nychyporenko and her two children lived for five days in a basement in Bucha, a town on the front lines of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as bombs and tanks destroyed the streets above ‘she.
A week later, the 48-year-old teacher and her family were in a refugee center in Paris, exhausted but safe, and awaiting temporary accommodation. They escaped during a lull in fighting, traveled for days in Poland, then took a free flight to the French capital. She now has the right to live and work in France for at least a year, with free medical care and schooling for her children.
“Poland is overflowing,” Ms. Nychyporenko said. “Now we are here, but then we will see. I have nowhere to return.
European Union governments have pledged unprecedented support for the more than 3.5 million refugees who have fled Ukraine, the largest movement of people on the continent since World War II. The deployment of these resources, however, is testing the EU’s ability to cooperate in a continent-wide humanitarian response. The aim is to prevent the influx of people from overwhelming the Eastern bloc countries that are on the front line of Europe’s conflict with Russia.
The pressure is mounting, with the war in Ukraine entering its fourth week. The refugees who fled at the start of the invasion were often those who had family or friends in the EU who would help support them. Those arriving now are more likely to flee conflict zones in Ukraine, suffer more trauma and lack connections in Europe, officials and refugee organizations have said. This means that they will rely more on government support.
Helping Eastern European countries cope with the influx promises to be a fundamental test for the EU, said Thomas Graham, senior lecturer in Russian and European studies at Yale University. “They need to handle this properly in the interest of their own future as a socio-economic and political bloc.”
The EU has given Ukrainians the right to live and work anywhere in the 27-nation bloc for at least a year, under a law passed two decades ago during the Balkan wars but which does not had never been activated before. The bloc is set to earmark tens of billions of dollars from its budget for member states to house refugees, provide medical care, pay for their children’s schooling and provide other forms of support.
Airlines, train and bus companies are offering free tickets to Ukrainians to settle across the bloc, away from Poland, Romania, Hungary and Slovakia, the countries bordering Ukraine where millions refugees are now staying. The EU has set up a system to transfer up to 10,000 people in need of medical care out of refugee centers in the east. Tens of thousands of Ukrainians arrive in Western Europe every day.
Yet, of the 2.1 million refugees who have entered Poland, most remain there. EU officials are discussing how to ensure those wishing to travel west can make the journey safely, in order to achieve a fairer distribution of refugees across the EU. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Monday called on governments to evacuate refugees from the bloc’s borders near Ukraine to resettle them in the EU and even the United States.
“We not only need local corridors out of Ukraine, we need an airlift,” Ms Baerbock said. “Everyone has to take in refugees and it’s not a few thousand, it’s millions.”
Welcoming Ukrainians to Poland is becoming increasingly difficult, said Agnieszka Kosowicz, president of the Polish Migration Forum, a nonprofit group. Many refugees live with families who took them in, but Ms Kosowicz said such arrangements are not a durable solution.
Poland’s health system, already strained by the Covid-19 pandemic, is ill-equipped to care for at least the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians who may remain in the country, refugee advocates have said. The Polish government asks the EU to cover the costs of treatment of Ukrainian refugees and to accept transfers of Ukrainian patients.
Western European governments should also do more to oversee the westward migration of Ukrainians by reaching out to refugees in Poland, Ms Kosowicz said.
“It would be safer and better monitored,” she said. “It would also make perfect sense to profile people in terms of language. If you have a French speaker, it would make sense to send them to France rather than Germany.
Diana Vitrychenko, a veterinarian who worked in a clinic in Odessa, drove five days across Europe with her son and mother to reach France, fleeing Russian forces for fear of an attack on her hometown. Ms. Vitrychenko, who speaks French, hopes to be able to work as a veterinarian in France.
“I feel lost,” Ms Vitrychenko said. “We find accommodation, then we look for work, French lessons for those who don’t speak it. And then when all this is over, we will want to return to our country.
Europe’s stance on Ukrainian refugees diverges from its migration policies of recent years. During the 2015 refugee crisis, Germany first took in Syrian refugees, sowing divisions with neighboring countries that did not want to share the burden. A plan to distribute Syrian refugees among member states backed by Germany and France has largely failed due to opposition from Eastern European countries that are at the center of this crisis. Since then, the EU has worked hard to prevent Syrians and people from other war-torn countries from crossing its borders.
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“This crisis,” French President Emmanuel Macron said after a summit of European leaders last month, “reminds some around the table who showed less solidarity when migratory pressure came from other borders of the EU. ‘Europe how good it is for Europe to show total solidarity and responsibility together.
The EU’s open door policy is not meeting resistance from populist and nationalist politicians on the continent who for years have defined the terms of the debate in Europe with their opposition to immigration in all its forms, including refugees.
Matteo Salvini, Italy’s top anti-immigration politician, traveled to the Polish border last week to greet Ukrainians and was heckled for previously praising Russian President Vladimir Putin. Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour, nationalists who are challenging Mr Macron in April’s presidential elections, said they support France in taking in Ukrainian refugees because they are from Europe as opposed to Syria, the country. Afghanistan or other conflict areas outside the continent.
“We were in a presidential campaign where positions on immigration were very strict,” said Hélène Soupios-David, advocacy director for France Terre d’Asile, an association that runs the reception center for Ukrainians in Paris. “The situation is so extraordinary that everything has changed.”
The refugee crisis, fueled by a war on the doorstep of the EU, is far larger than in the Syrian crisis, with 3.5 million people fleeing Ukraine in less than a month, compared to 1.3 million Syria and other countries that entered the bloc throughout the crisis. 2015. The influx is already straining countries like France and Belgium, where Ukrainians are queuing up for housing and residence permits. France has opened a larger facility in southern Paris to register refugees, along with several other centers across the country.
Anna Kazimirova, a student from the Black Sea port city of Odessa, walked across the border to Moldova and then walked for days to reach Romania. Ms. Kazimirova studied French at school and decided to leave for Paris. She spent the night waiting outside the refugee center to obtain one of the several hundred residence permits the center processes each day.
“My mother wanted her daughter to study at the Sorbonne,” Ms Kazimirova said. “Maybe dreams come true.”
Write to Matthew Dalton at Matthew.Dalton@wsj.com
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