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UN refugee chief fears solidarity with fleeing Ukrainians may curdle into backlash

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As millions of Ukrainians flee war, the head of the U.N.’s refugee agency is cautioning that Europe’s initial surge of support could eventually erode into an acrimonious backlash.

In a recent interview with POLITICO, Filippo Grandi, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees, recalled that the 2015 wave of Syrian refugees similarly started with Europeans welcoming those fleeing war back home. But it soon started dividing the EU and fueled the rise of anti-migrant and far-right political movements — a legacy that remains to this day.

“Economic preoccupation, the impact of COVID, they will reemerge inevitably,” Grandi said. “And then, if the situation is protracted, which we don’t know, but it might well be, then I fear that the wave of solidarity might exhaust itself and provoke a backlash, which would make things more difficult.”

More immediately, though, Grandi is grappling with “my first concern” — the sheer volume of the Ukraine refugee flows, which has already dwarfed the 2015 rush from Syria.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, more than 3.5 million people have left the country, according to the U.N., with the vast majority heading to EU countries. That means the bloc has already absorbed a population the size of several of its smaller members and approaching the population of Croatia, the newest EU member.

It’s hard to know how high that number will climb.

In recent days, Grandi said, “we’ve seen a slight slowdown of the arrivals.” That doesn’t necessarily mean the refugee wave is waning, however. Lots of Ukrainians moved to western Ukraine during the invasion’s early days as Russian troops attacked mostly in the south and east. If the situation worsens in the coming weeks, those people may choose to leave the country.

“It may be that the Russian offensive has not yet impacted in a major way western Ukraine, where the very huge amount of displaced people are now waiting,” Grandi said.

Grandi talked to POLITICO while in Brussels for meetings. He is also visiting the countries bearing the brunt of the Ukrainian exodus.

“The impact of having millions of people is enormous,” he said, even for countries “that are fairly well organized, as I have seen in Romania and Poland.”

In Warsaw, for instance, Grandi said the Polish government told him “they were already thinking how they will have to recruit more teachers, or find more space in health centers or in public hospitals, because, fundamentally, from one month to the other, their population increased by 2 million.”

Poland’s welcoming approach stands in dramatic contrast to its 2015 attitude. At the time, Warsaw refused to participate in an EU plan to mandate that countries “relocate” Syrian asylum seekers across the Continent. The fierce debates over that plan left scars on the EU — the terminology now used for Ukraine refugees has even been changed from “relocate” to “transfer,” avoiding the specter of the time period.

The vicious debates in 2015 broke out after an initial welcoming period. Then-German Chancellor Angela Merkel even inaugurated an open-door policy initially, only to walk that back just weeks later. Still, her country ultimately took in over a million asylum seekers in 2015 and 2016 — a move critics say helped fan the flames of the country’s far right.

Grandi said one can’t directly compare 2015 with 2022.

Many fleeing Ukrainians have family or friends across Europe, he noted, “and that is an advantage.” And the EU’s decision to instantly offer Ukrainians the right to live and work within the bloc will help people assimilate, he argued.

“That allows people to spread naturally” across the Continent, Grandi said.

But for now, Ukrainian refugees are clustered in the countries surrounding Ukraine. It’s understandable, Grandi said: “Some of them want to return as soon as they can.”

Yet if the trend continues, “those countries will be overburdened,” he added. “So I think that we need to move from spontaneous burden-sharing at some point to a more structured one, but I’m not suggesting we do it right away.”

The other obvious difference between 2015 and today is race — Ukrainians are predominantly white and European. The instant protections now being offered to Ukrainians were not previously extended to people fleeing the Afghanistan war, for example.

“A lot has been said: Do Europeans see other Europeans more favorably? There may be some of that, and it shouldn’t be, clearly,” Grandi said. “However, I think that here, people also see more clearly the correlation between war and flight than ever before.”

Grandi confirmed reports of discrimination against non-Ukrainians — including Africans — attempting to flee the war.

“Unfortunately, some cases happened both inside Ukraine and at the borders,” he said. But, he added, “I was encouraged by the assurances of … the Polish government from very early on that it was not a state policy.”

Grandi refused to speculate whether EU societies have a cap for accepting Ukrainian refugees. Some EU officials have said the bloc could accommodate almost 15 million people.

As the numbers continue to escalate analysts and officials wonder if the EU will also change its attitude regarding migration from other places, like Africa. Grandi said he will continuously remind European leaders “of the solidarity they showed” in the current war’s early days, stressing the point: “An effort can be made.”



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