Opinion |

What Happens When Europe Gets Tired of the Ukraine Refugee Crisis?

Animated by volunteers, donations and goodwill, Europe’s humanitarian response to the flood of refugees from Ukraine is inspiring. We Jewish refugee aid groups have to plan for when funds and energy begin to wane

Ilan Cohn
Ilan Cohn
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A firefighter holds the baby of a refugee fleeing the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, Romania
A firefighter holds the baby of a refugee fleeing the conflict from neighbouring Ukraine at the Romanian-Ukrainian border, in Siret, RomaniaCredit: AP Photo/Andreea Alexandru
Ilan Cohn
Ilan Cohn

I have just returned from the Polish-Ukrainian border, from the crossings at Medyka and Korczowa. As head of HIAS Europe, I have seen many refugee crises, but never one as rapid as this. Since Russia invaded on February 24, over 50,000 Ukrainians have fled to Poland every single day, and they are still coming. The United Nations now estimates over three million have already fled — that’s almost one in 15 Ukrainians.

The good news is that Poland seems to have prepared for the worst-case refugee scenario. The bad news is that the worst-case scenario happened. And it could get worse.

At the moment, as we know from our colleagues at Right to Protection (R2P), the Ukrainian refugee organization HIAS helped create, the situation is dire. The invasion and the destruction of social support means people are cold, homeless and hungry.

At the border, families enduring long waits to cross, but once they do, things are different. Despite the massive scale of this unfolding catastrophe – the biggest war and the largest number of refugees in Europe since World War II – the humanitarian response has been phenomenal. Ukraine’s neighbors are rising to the occasion.

At smaller centers such as the Jewish community in Moldova, refugees are welcomed and enter into a system that takes them by car and bus to parts of the country able to offer comprehensive help. At larger centers like the ones I visited in Warsaw, arrivals are greeted with food, shelter, medical aid, consular assistance, and telephone SIM cards so they can contact friends and family.

The system seems well-managed, and, especially at the moment with thousands of eager volunteers, well-staffed. At the Warsaw Jewish Community offices, one of the local coordination centers, fatigued staff and volunteers were answering calls non-stop, many of them offering different types of support. While I spoke with Poland's Chief Rabbi Michael Schudrich, his phone kept ringing with requests for and offers of accommodation, kosher food, or transport from the border.

This humanitarian operation is based at the Noyk Synagogue, which during World War II was part of the "Small Ghetto" and surrounded by displaced Jews.

In addition to an outpouring of offers of accommodation from around the continent, there are many Ukrainians already in Poland – nearly two million by some estimates – and they are eager to absorb the first influx of their fellow countrymen.

These refugees, most of whom are women and children, will likely stay in Poland for some time because their husbands and fathers are still in Ukraine. As a matter of fact, many patriotic Ukrainian men living in Poland are heading back to their homeland to fight against the Russians, which means Ukrainian families in Poland hosting new refugees often need to figure out how to survive as two families with one fewer wage-earner.

Refugees fill the Przemysl, Poland train station, the first stop inside Poland on the rail route from UkraineCredit: HIAS

As the invasion continues, the challenge will grow. Hundreds of thousands – or even millions – more arrivals could push Poland to its absorption capacity. Sadly, experience tells us that the volunteer energy that is so inspiring today will all too likely wane in an ongoing crisis, just as the funds donors have pledged to meet the emergency will dry up once a challenging situation is no longer an emergency but, rather, a grim new normal.

In the short term, we need to help absorb or repatriate people from India, Africa and the central Asian republics who've fled Ukraine and are now stranded. In many cases, they are students and young professionals with no help closeby and who are often victims of racism. At the moment, they are less able to move on quickly from the reception centers.

In the medium term, as refugee numbers keep climbing, we need to expand our capacity for relocating some of the refugees in the neighboring states, as well as resettling some to the United States and other countries around the world, including Israel.

This means making sure that the numerous offers of Jewish communities around western Europe to host refugees are available when needed and effectively matched with refugees in need of accommodation.

Refugees, including citizens of various countries, try to stay warm after fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine, at the Medyka border crossing in PolandCredit: AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu

Whereas the arrivals during the first days of the war often managed by themselves through existing networks, it appears likely that future arrivals will reach the European Union increasingly traumatized and with fewer resources and networks.

And in the long term, we need to systematize refugee reception so that we can bring expertise, effectiveness and proper protections to those fleeing conflict.

The large volume of volunteers in Jewish community centers we are seeing today is inspirational, and there will always be a place for them. Professional groups like HIAS, working alongside these incredible volunteers who so quickly answered the call to welcome refugees, will bring their experience to add to that volunteer energy.

In this way, we can ensure that traumatized refugee communities get the mental health treatment they need, that displaced communities set up systems and norms that avoid gender-based violence and that agencies can coordinate large scale resettlement on a temporary or, if need be, permanent basis.

Good planning so far has kept us ahead of the crisis. But as Putin digs in, we must plan for the long haul. We need to ensure that the initiatives around Europe are coordinated for maximum impact. As the number of increasingly traumatized and vulnerable refugees crossing the border rises, our energies and resources will become increasingly strained. The time to build coordination mechanisms for relocation, resettlement and, ultimately, integration is now.

Ilan Cohn is the Head of HIAS Europe. HIAS is the 155-year old international Jewish organization that provides critical support to refugees in 16 countries around the world

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