EExhausted and exhausted, Ukrainian refugees have been living through hell since the Russian invasion of their country in February 2022.
According to the United Nations, at least 12 million people have fled their homes since the start of the war, more than 5 million having left for other countries, leaving 7 million people displaced inside Ukraine. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of refugees have made the reverse journey to return to their home countries to relatively safe cities such as Kyiv.
These traumatized people fled war-torn Ukraine to European countries, mainly to Poland, escaping the daily thunder of Russian bombardment. For the most part women and children, they tell harrowing stories of death, destruction and endless days lived in underground railways, theater basements and dangerous crossings across borders as civilian targets are hit by Russian troops and weapons intended to bomb Ukraine into submission. .
This is still a staggering refugee crisis for the European continent, the worst in decades, the outcome of which could determine the future of Europe and of democracy. Towns and villages across Europe are filled to the brim with Ukrainians in need of immediate medical and psychological counseling, housing for anxious parents, frightened children, frail elderly, and many without papers or physical possessions – only mental and physical scars of war.
Many wonder whether Europe can continue to manage the refugee crisis, providing immediate assistance to refugees and medium and long-term assistance. Patience runs out as the war drags on. Internal pressures on governments are increasing as citizens worry about resources for their own populations.
Refugee crises have stages, each with its own challenges. If part of Vladimir Putin’s agenda has been to clean up Ukraine and impose a massive refugee crisis on Europe as part of an overall destabilization of the West, Europe’s response could have a impact on the future of Putin and his regime. Europe knows that everyone is watching how it handles this refugee crisis.
The most important steps taken so far are that the European Union agreed together to trigger a temporary protection directive, never used before, granting temporary protection to Ukrainians fleeing the Russian onslaught. The directive was approved in 2001 after the wars in Yugoslavia and Bosnia but was never administered. Under the directive, Ukrainian refugees will receive residence permits to stay inside the European bloc for at least one year, a period that will be automatically extended for another year and could be renewed for up to three years. Ukrainian refugees and their relatives will have access to education, health, employment and housing. Protection can be granted by any EU country, not just the first country reached by the refugee.
Europe is showing unusual flexibility for those who have fled their homes without their passports or other means of personal identification. The Commission indicates that Member States can relax border controls and allow them to enter their territory so that they can reach a safe place, where identity checks will be carried out. Displaced Ukrainians can bring their personal belongings without being subject to traditional customs duties. And recently, the UK has created a new legal scheme allowing unaccompanied teenagers to obtain refugee status.
But temporary protection does not automatically mean that a person is granted asylum. Those under the special protection regime can apply for asylum at any time during their stay. Inevitably, there will be backlogs of cases just as the refugee crisis in the United States has become mired in asylum claims.
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Europe is still struggling to master the art of avoiding bureaucratic legal pitfalls so that people are not left in limbo. Some of the smaller and poorer countries like Moldova and Slovakia don’t have much spare capacity. Many Ukrainians complain about paperwork and difficulties, especially in obtaining visas for England. Those who want to join relatives in America will face enormous red tape and US government bureaucracy to establish parole or humanitarian asylum. The Biden administration’s offer to take 100,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to what European countries are supplying. US aid will help, but it seems designed to predict that more Ukrainians will return home to rebuild and that could take months yet.
Housing is a major issue. It’s one thing for families to host refugees for weeks or for people to book hotels. But human beings need space and a roof over their heads. Europe must avoid tent cities or refugee camps, which means temporary constructions at a time when the supply chain limits wood and materials. It will take a European housing “tsar”, just to look at living conditions.
Education is another big concern. Some Ukrainian students receive online support or are invited to classrooms in host countries. With summer, refugee children need spaces to play and there are limits to the space a country can provide. For countries bordering Ukraine – Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania – the number of refugees corresponds to the population of entire towns. At some point, services may run out and setting up a European education system to manage schooling will become critical. Most non-profit and humanitarian organizations will not provide day-to-day education for refugees.
Then there are the jobs. If the war drags on, the longer term problems will arise when the refugees seek employment. Identifying and matching skills to jobs is a massive undertaking. Europe will need to improve its digital treatment of Ukrainians and ensure the separation of Ukrainian refugees from other non-European refugees still seeking work on the continent. Germany has proven to be the most adept when it comes to technological facilities for processing refugees.
Europe will also need to figure out how to leverage the Ukrainian diaspora to help with longer-term housing, medical care and employment. They can be a powerful force in helping to integrate into European, American or Canadian society.
Those who end up staying in Europe will need to feel part of the fabric of the country – not guests but full citizens, immersed in daily life. Those who want to return home will need help getting there and rebuilding the towns razed by the Russians. And there will be continued trauma and fear that Russia will strike again. Europe and the United States will have to remain united to protect the Ukrainian government and democracy in their countries.
As the humanitarian situation in the eastern part of Ukraine worsens, the challenge for every human being has become more complex. But if European solidarity, reinforced by civic engagement, can last, there is reason to hope.
Pray that this consent of the volunteers will be a beacon in the days to come and that those who want to return to Ukraine will have that option, and those who want to live in Europe will find those doors open and the critical parts of a full life granted. As the humanitarian situation in the eastern part of Ukraine worsens, the challenge for every human being has become more complex.
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