EExhausted and exhausted, Ukrainian refugees have endured hell since the Russian invasion of their country in February 2022.
At least 12 million people have fled their homes since the start of the war, according to the United Nations – more than 5 million have left for other countries, leaving 7 million displaced people in Ukraine. It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of refugees have made the reverse journey to their homeland, to relatively safe cities like Kiev.
These traumatized people have flocked from war-torn Ukraine to European countries, mainly Poland, fleeing the daily thunder of Russian bombing. Mostly women and children, they bring heart-wrenching tales of death, destruction, and endless days lived in underground railways, theater basements, and enduring perilous border crossings as civilian targets are hit by Russian troops and weapons destined to bomb Ukraine into submission.
It remains a dizzying refugee crisis for the European continent, the worst in decades, the outcome of which could determine the future of Europe and democracy. Cities and towns in Europe are filled to the brim with Ukrainians in desperate need of medical and psychological help, housing for anxious parents, frightened children, frail elderly and many without documents or physical possessions – only mental and physical scars from the war.
Many question whether Europe can continue to manage the refugee crisis by providing immediate aid to refugees and medium- and longer-term aid. Patience is running out as the war continues. Internal pressure on governments is mounting as citizens worry about the resources for their own people.
Refugee crises have stages, each with their own problems. If part of Vladimir Putin’s agenda has been to purge Ukraine and impose a massive refugee crisis on Europe as part of an overall destabilization of the West, the way Europe responds could influence the future of Putin and his regime. Europe knows that everyone is watching how this refugee crisis is being handled.
The key steps taken so far are that the European Union has jointly agreed to put into effect a never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive providing temporary protection to Ukrainians fleeing Russian attack. The directive was adopted in 2001 after the wars in Yugoslavia and Bosnia, but was never implemented. Under the directive, Ukrainian refugees will be given residence permits to stay in the European bloc for at least one year, a period that is automatically extended for another year and can be extended for another three years. Ukrainian refugees and their relatives have access to education, health care, work and housing. Protection can be granted by any EU country, not just the first country the refugee reaches.
Europe shows an uncharacteristic flexibility for those who fled their homes without their passports or any other means of personal identification. The Commission says that Member States can relax border controls and allow them to enter their territory so that they can reach a safe location where ID checks will be carried out. Ukrainian displaced persons can take their personal belongings with them without being subject to traditional customs duties. And recently the UK passed new legislation to grant refugee status to unaccompanied teenagers.
But temporary protection does not automatically mean that someone is granted asylum. Those covered by the special protection schemes can apply for asylum at any time during their stay. Inevitably there will be backlogs in cases, just as America’s refugee crisis stalled on asylum cases.
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Europe is still struggling to master the art of avoiding legal bureaucratic traps so that people are not left in the dark. Some of the smaller, poorer countries such as Moldova and Slovakia do not have much spare capacity. Many Ukrainians complain about the paperwork and difficulties, especially getting visas for England. Those who want to join relatives in America will face enormous bureaucracy and bureaucracy from the US government for instituting humanitarian parole or asylum. The Biden administration’s offer to take 100,000 is a drop in the ocean compared to what European countries are offering. US aid will help, but it appears to be geared towards predicting that more Ukrainians will go home to rebuild, which could take months.
Housing is a big problem. It’s one thing for families to take in refugees for weeks or for people to book hotels. But man needs space and a roof over his head. Europe must avoid tent towns or refugee camps and that means temporary construction at a time of limits on wood and materials in the supply chain. A European “tsar” for housing will be needed just to look at living conditions.
Education is another major concern. Some Ukrainian students receive help online or are invited to classrooms in host countries. With summer here, refugee children need space to play and there are limits to how much space each country can provide. For the countries bordering Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Romania, the refugee numbers correspond to the population of entire cities. At some point, services may run out and setting up a European education system will become crucial. Most non-profit and humanitarian organizations will not provide daily education to refugees.
Then there are jobs. If the war continues, longer-term problems will crop up as refugees seek work. Identifying and matching skills with jobs is a huge undertaking. Europe will need to improve its digital processing of Ukrainians and ensure that Ukrainian refugees are separated from other non-European refugees who are still looking for work on the continent. Germany has proven to be the most proficient in refugee technological processing facilities.
Europe will also need to figure out how to use the Ukrainian diaspora to help with longer-term housing, medical care and employment. They can be a powerful force to assist integration into European, American or Canadian society.
Those who eventually stay in Europe will have to feel part of the fabric of the country – not guests but full citizens, immersed in everyday life. Those who want to go home need help getting there and rebuilding cities destroyed by the Russians. And there will be lingering trauma and fear that Russia could strike again. Europe and the US will have to stay united to protect the Ukrainian government and democracy in their country.
As the humanitarian situation in the eastern part of Ukraine worsens, the challenge for each person becomes more complex. But if European solidarity, underpinned by public engagement, can continue, there is cause for hope.
Let us pray that this agreement of the willing will be a guiding light in the days to come and that those who want to return to Ukraine will have that option, and that those who want to live in Europe will find those doors open and the critical parts of given a full life. As the humanitarian situation in the eastern part of Ukraine worsens, the challenge for each person becomes more complex.
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