6th Jun 2023

Murky plans for Ukraine refugees may soon face test

  • Ukraine President Zelenskyy proposes to meet with Putin to ease tensions (Photo: European Union)
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The prospect of war in Ukraine has prompted speculation about the readiness, not to mention the willingness, of the EU to handle a large number of potential refugees heading westwards.

Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia all share a border with Ukraine, which has 31 official border crossings with those EU states — the majority, 12, with Poland. Romania has nine crossings; Hungary six; and Slovakia four.

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That very porousness of the border poses questions on those EU states' contingency plans that, for the most part, have remained confidential.

But those plans, such as they are, could soon be tested amid continued military brinksmanship by Russia and the recent shelling of a kindergarten in eastern Ukraine, the deaths of two Ukrainian soldiers, and a decision by Russia to leave 30,000 troops in Belarus.

Poland's deputy interior minister Maciej Wąsik said in February that his country was ready to take in one million potential refugees from Ukraine.

But that figure is disputed by some analysts.

"It is a pipe dream," said Michal Baranowski, who directs the German Marshall Fund in Poland, told EUobserver. "It is not the reality."

Although Poland could create up to 40,000 additional temporary spaces in a matter of days, it is only effectively able to house 3,500 refugees, said Baranowski.

Should there actually be initial arrivals of around one million people, they would instead have to rely on help from other EU states and on Poland's large Ukrainian diaspora, who share cultural and religious affinities with the local population, he said.

Other refugees from a Ukrainian conflict are likely to continue further West, perhaps to Germany which also has a sizable Ukrainian diaspora.

Polish local regional authorities also are involved in planning.

Among them is the mayor of the Polish town of Ciechanow who told Reuters it could receive 80 refugees within 48 hours. Other towns, like Czestochowa, were reported as having 1,100 available places

Baranowski said a scenario involving mass arrivals of Ukrainians arriving in Poland seemed, for now, unlikely. He cited the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, which led to internal displacements rather than refugees.

Slovakia's secret plan

But Slovakian defence minister Jaroslav Nad said even a limited Russian military attack could lead to tens of thousands of refugees crossing to Slovakia.

"The Slovak government has already prepared three strategic documents," he was quoted as saying in Euractiv. "One of these is the so-called migration plan. Although it is currently not public," he said.

Ján Orlovský, the director of migration at the Slovak ministry of interior, provided additional insights.

"Currently, there are three operating facilities established for asylum seekers with an immediate capacity up to 1,000 persons that can be further expanded by temporary shelters," he told EUobserver.

But large scale arrivals still could take some getting used to.

Slovakia had not seen any major arrival of refugees since the war in Yugoslavia and had received less than 4,300 asylum applications in the past decade, Orlovský said.

Ukrainians already are Slovakia's largest minority, numbering some 56,000.

And Slovakia still is lacking in both funding and in integration programs. Plus there is a pervasive anti-refugee sentiment following the 2015-2016 refugee crisis when more than a million mostly Syrian refugees came to Europe.

"We should not rely on the fact that this time we would be dealing with arrival of non-Muslim, culturally close Ukrainians and therefore everything will be OK said Zuzana Števulová of the Bratislava-based Human Right League. "Such [a] belief might be very wrong," she told EUobserver.

"Public confidence and solidarity has to be carefully built and more effort on the side of the government in this respect is needed," she said.

Meanwhile, in Romania, the government is currently assessing how many refugee camps could be set up at a short notice.

"We are analysing existing lodging capacities in border counties but we are also discussing the second stage, with neighbouring counties, and the third stage across the country," said Romania's interior minister Lucian Bode, earlier this week.

As for Hungary, the situation also remains unclear — and a government spokesperson did not respond to questions on plans.

The apparent lack of preparation for Ukrainian refugee arrivals is "especially worrying not only in light of the situation in Ukraine, but also because of the currently applicable legal framework in Hungary," said András Léderer, a senior analyst at the Budapest-based Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights organisation.

Léderer was referring to lengthy procedures, requiring people wanting to seek refuge in Hungary to first get permission from the Hungarian embassy in Belgrade or Kyiv. This could take up to two months. Anyone caught without the proper work could end up being deported to the Serb side of the border.

"This means, in short, that unless the government changes the legal framework, Ukrainians potentially fleeing from a conflict would not be allowed to seek asylum and could be removed to the Serbian side of the border fence," he said.

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