The perilous road ahead for Ukrainian refugees

Ukrainian refugees face a number of challenges and threats as they seek to settle in their host countries. Long-term, some of those who have welcomed them today may turn against them tomorrow.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, millions of people have had to flee their homes to seek safety. According to United Nations (UN) figures, almost seven million left Ukraine while eight million others are reportedly internally displaced.

The first hurdle for those fleeing the war is to find safe routes to their destinations while under Russian fire. Some people are too frail for travel, even in peacetime.

Leaving the scene of war does not always mean escaping the grip of your enemy. Some Ukrainians were forced to go to Russia. Fortunately, however, the majority of Ukrainian refugees have made it to countries that branded them as allies.

It is important to distinguish between the stated support for the plight of Ukrainians and how that rhetoric is translated into action. Many countries that have been very vocal in expressing solidarity with Ukraine – especially those that do not share a border with it – have failed to act swiftly to allow in Ukrainian refugees.

For all its pro-Ukraine rhetoric, the United States for example had resettled only 12 Ukrainian refugees in March. In fact, in order to enter the US, some Ukrainians had to fly to Mexico and enter from the land border with America.

Likewise, the UK has had its fair share of mistakes and restrictive bureaucracy when it comes to accommodating Ukrainian refugees, despite the generosity and good-will expressed by the British public.

Britain’s mismatch between words and deeds with regards to Ukraine may not necessarily be intentional. “Hostile environment” immigration measures had been put in place long before there were Ukrainian refugees. “The Home Office … instinct is to keep people out. That’s what it primarily does all the time. And it finds it incredibly difficult to turn around. It can’t just whiz around in a 180-degree direction,” British Member of Parliament David Davis told LBC radio.

Practical challenges 

Once Ukrainian refugees are welcomed into host countries, they face a new set of problems.

Whether in the UKFrance or Germany, the initial problem many refugees encounter is the language barrier, which delays settling in the host countries. It may hinder job opportunities for qualified adults and cause an education gap for children.

As the number of Ukrainian refugees increases, host countries are having issues with offering them proper housing. In Ireland, some refugees were placed in direct provision centres.

Poland hosts the greatest number of Ukrainian refugees, but it may not be able to continue providing its costly support without financial help from the European Union (EU). Many of the refugees in Eastern Europe in particular are in need of specialist help to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Ukrainians who have escaped sexual violence inside war-torn Ukraine are still threatened by such abuses in Europe. Aside from the vulnerability of Ukrainian child and female refugees, the breakup of families is traumatic on its own.

Long-term, there is a risk that many of those who have welcomed Ukrainian refugees would reverse their position. “If the war grinds on, economies slow and governments fail to provide the newcomers with housing, services and jobs, Europe’s welcome mats could be withdrawn. Dissent can already be heard in some overburdened countries. In Romania, a nationalist fringe contends that Ukraine, not Russia, is the enemy. In Moldova some Ukrainians’ cars have been vandalised,” wrote The Economist.

Ideological threats 

The existing ‘welcome to Ukrainian refugees’ in the West is broadly divided into two groups: one that sympathises with people in need regardless of their ethnicity; the other has somewhat bias – if not bigoted – motivations which favour only White refugees.

The degree of intolerance in some quarters of Europe has led, for example, some Germans to become immigrants in Paraguay because they were uncomfortable with immigrants in Germany.

There was hope that the spirit of kindness towards Ukrainian refugees would awaken broader compassion towards asylum seekers from all over the world. But there is also the fear that those who made exceptions for Ukrainians today might turn against them tomorrow. It’s easy for the latter group to look for what divides people.

As Ukraine and Russia accuse each other of being neo-Nazis, some supporters of both countries have parroted these accusations without looking into their own ideologies. Far-right fascists from all sides seem to take issue with the word “Nazi” but not its manifestations.

In fact, had it not been for the war in Ukraine, many far-right figures in the West would continue to support and be supported by Moscow. They cheered on Russia as it bombarded civilians and propped up a dictatorship in the MENA region.

Some right-wingers saw Russia’s President Vladimir Putin as defender of the Christian faith as Russian priests blessed the warplanes that would go on to bomb hospitals in Syria.

Right-wingers are not alone. France’s “centrist” President Emmanuel Macron, who is accused of making French Muslims unwelcome in their own country, is once more adopting a soft stance towards Putin.

In 2014, former Labour British prime minister Tony Blair called on the UK government to put aside its difference with Russia over Ukraine (i.e. after Russian forces invaded Crimea) and co-operate with Putin to fight “the threat of radical Islam.”

It must be stressed that the obsession with one threat (like terrorism committed by Muslims) over all sorts of other threats is among the reasons why Putin has been allowed to become such a danger to Europe (in addition to displacing Ukrainians).

And it’s not just Putin. There has been a rise of far-right terrorism in the West amid preoccupation with the threat of the non-White “other.” While the threat of foreign terrorists must always be urgently addressed, dealing with such security threats should not mean giving oxygen to fascist ideologies or supporters of Putin.  “Radical Islam” can never bring down Western civilisation or democracies, but fascism, Nazism or White Supremacy can. And the man who enjoys the support of many fascists is threatening the security of the whole of Europe.

It is this hate-filled mentality that wreaks havoc in Ukraine today and will threaten Ukrainian refugees – wherever they are in Europe – tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the opinion section of the website Middle East Monitor.

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