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Three million migrants have now fled Ukraine —with the majority going to Poland. That could have major repercussion

Three million migrants have now fled Ukraine —with the majority going to Poland. That could have major repercussion

In less than three weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has evacuated 3 million people to neighboring countries, with millions more internally displaced, in what has fast become Europe’s biggest migrant crisis since WWII.

The sudden influx of people is having a profound impact on the European landscape — with potentially significant consequences. While the majority have been compassionately welcomed by host countries rejecting President Vladimir Putin’s indiscriminate attack, the sudden influx of people is having a profound impact on the European landscape — with potentially significant consequences.

Poland, more than any other country, has felt the brunt of this influence.

Poland is Ukraine’s closest ally.

Poland: Ukraine’s closest neighbor

Since the beginning of the war on February 24, Poland has taken in almost 1.8 million refugees, over double the 1 million expected by the authorities, and boosted its population by 4.8 percent.

Due to its 530-kilometer common land border and extensive historical, cultural, and economic linkages, the east European country is a natural point of entry for Ukrainians. Indeed, a substantial Ukrainian diaspora already exists in Poland, following a previous wave of migration following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea.

However, as the number of refugees requiring humanitarian aid grows much beyond original projections, the government and the dozens of relief organizations that have organized to assist them are under significant strain.

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“To begin with, everyone knew where they wanted to go. “They had some friends they wanted to stay with [in Poland],” said Dominika Chylewska, communications director of Caritas Polska, a charity that provides assistance to refugees in Polish receiving centers such as Przemysl, a city 12 kilometers from Ukraine’s border.

Others, she claimed, were still planning trips to Berlin, Prague, and Tallinn.

“We can already see that more people are coming without a clear destination,” Chylewska added.

Determining long-term status and financial aid

This raises concerns about the migrants’ long-term fate and what the European Union can do to help host countries like Poland.

“It puts the EU in a pickle,” said Adriano Bosoni, director of analysis at intelligence firm RANE, referring to financial help and permanent residency decisions the bloc will have to make.

So far, the EU has allocated 500 million euros ($547 million) to Ukraine in humanitarian help. According to estimates from the Economist Intelligence Unit, the cost of assisting 5 million refugees in 2022 alone might be 50 billion euros.

Meanwhile, the EU has triggered a seldom-used Temporary Protection Directive, which allows Ukrainian people to live and work in host countries for up to three years.

In the long run, it will have to determine whether to provide permanent refuge to migrants and how to transfer them across the bloc to relieve pressure on key hosts such as Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Moldova.

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“Without significant aid from the international community, the [Polish] government will be unable to deal with the issue.”

Shifting Polish demographics

Poland, a country of about 38 million people, was witnessing a demographic transition even before the crisis.

Since entering the EU in 2004, the Eastern European country has seen high levels of emigration as talented professionals have moved west to other member states in search of better earnings and prospects.

Meanwhile, a declining fertility rate has contributed to the country’s total population drop, driven, like many of its Western contemporaries, by increased sex education, more female workforce engagement, and increased urbanization.

According to Bosoni, this might make Poland, which was already one of Europe’s fastest-growing economies before to Covid, a grateful recipient of long-term, competent labor.

“Importing millions of young Ukrainian employees who can join your workforce and contribute makes economic sense,” he said, highlighting the high level of education among migrants from Ukraine, who are largely women and children.

Nonetheless, the political dangers to Poland and its neighbors are significant.

The 2015 European migrant crisis is regarded to have encouraged far-right movements across the continent in the years that followed. Poland was hesitant to welcome refugees at the time, most of whom were from Syria and North Africa, a fact that has not gone unnoticed in its response to Ukraine.

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“Polish citizens continue to show strong sympathy for Ukrainian refugees. However, the crisis has the potential to lead to political instability in the longer term, according to Cugnasca of the EIU.

“Unlike work migrants, war refugees would require major financial assistance from the state, which could result in a political backlash in the road,” he added, referring to Poland’s next parliamentary election, which is scheduled for 2023.

Awaiting conflict resolution

Of course, analysts agreed that the long-term consequences will be largely determined by the outcome of the battle.

If Russia succeeds in invading Ukraine and installing a pro-Kremlin administration, as many fear, the likelihood of migrants going home will be much reduced.

However, if the crisis is resolved in a way that restores a sovereign Ukraine, as Western partners hope, the majority of migrants may opt to return home and begin the long process of rebuilding their war-torn country.

“The majority of those who left would wish to be able to return,” Bosoni remarked. “These are people fleeing conflict and death, not economic migrants.”

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