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How a massive influx of Ukraine refugees could change Europe


In just over a month, 4 million Ukrainians have fled their country. The vast majority have ended up in other European countries, where they've been welcomed with open arms. That's in stark contrast to the last migrant crisis in Europe, which peaked in 2015. At that time, just over a million migrants entered Europe, leading to a backlash in several countries that paved the way for anti-immigration politicians and calls for asylum reform. So will this warm welcome be short-lived? We wanted to understand how this refugee crisis may affect Europe, so we called Hanne Beirens. She's the Europe director of the Migration Policy Institute. She's based in Brussels, and she joins us now. Welcome.

HANNE BEIRENS: Hi. Thanks for calling.

PARKS: To start us off, the numbers - as I mentioned, 4 million people - are staggering. That's just an incredible amount of people who need new homes, need new jobs, need new livelihoods. Can you tell us a little bit about how Europe is handling this massive influx of people?

BEIRENS: Yes. As Filippo Grandi, the High Commissioner for Refugees, has said, this is the largest refugee crisis since World War II - 4 million in just a month. Just the speed with which people are arriving, the volume but also the profile is quite different. There's a lot of families arriving with small or older children. And a first big challenge is to register and identify everyone we know from the Syrian crisis. We do not want people to move through a territory without being then properly identified. And so there's a lot of work being done on registration already.

The good news is that rather than having to go through an asylum procedure, which may take months or years, as we know also from the past, the EU has quickly decided to activate a temporary protection mechanism. It's the first time it's been triggered since its inception 20 years ago but basically allows Ukrainians when they arrive to merely register, show their passport, and then they get immediate protection. And it gives them a set of rights, for example, to enroll their children in schools, to access the labor market - and this across the EU in the same manner.

PARKS: Yeah. I wonder about, like you said, all of these systems have jumped into place to welcome these Ukrainian refugees with open arms. What's your reaction to that? - because it does seem very different to what we saw in 2015 during that 2015 migrant crisis.

BEIRENS: The outpouring of support for Ukrainians has been really staggering. One of the reasons for that is that this is a war that's waged on the European continent. It's waged by an actor, Russia, that has also in the past suppressed populations that are part of the European Union. Think about Poland but other also Central and Eastern European countries. And so that memory of that kind of repression is very much now reactivated. What we know, of course, with any kind of solidarity with a refugee crisis is that it has a particular life cycle. It's very strong at the beginning. But at some point, these other emotions of frustration, for example, competition for school places, access to social housing also emerges. And at some point, then, it threatens to wear that very solidarity thin.

PARKS: I do wonder, too, how much the different reaction this time around compared to 2015 has to do with race. You know, a few years ago, most of the migrants were coming from places like Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, and most of them were young men compared to now, which, as you mentioned, most of the refugees are women and children. How much of the different reaction, in your eyes, do you think has to do with race?

BEIRENS: Well, it's an open secret - or a public secret, as we say - in that countries like Hungary and Poland are not in favor of hosting refugees which they perceive as practicing values and norms that are different from theirs, certain religions that are different from theirs. And so in the past, it's been these countries that have very much opposed the idea and proposals from the EU and from other EU member states to share the responsibility for those who arrive.

I think we need to be careful not to cast the entire EU response as, you know, reflecting those ideas. But what I think is very different and why there is this greater outpouring of support, and by countries that traditionally have opposed refugees from certain countries, is that you need to look at this crisis not primarily as a refugee crisis. The Syrian crisis was very much treated by the EU as a migration refugee crisis. The Ukrainian crisis is seen very much as a geopolitical crisis, as the EU coming to terms with having a neighbor, a global world power, Russia, which is willing to use violence and wage war to pursue its political aims.

PARKS: As you think about the systems and policies that these countries need to be putting in place to be able to take in all these refugees effectively, how does the fact that so many of these refugees are women and children change all this? What different sort of policies and what changes need to be made specifically based on the demographics of the people coming into these countries?

BEIRENS: Yes, and that's such an important question. Now we have, for example, in Belgium, 95% of Ukrainians arriving being families, mostly women and children. There's an estimated 50,000 that may arrive in Belgium as to children and young people. And so all of these will need to be enrolled and finding a place in school, in a landscape where there's already high competition for school places and a shortage of teachers - the same when it comes to labor market integration.

PARKS: Thinking about just how many people are going to be coming into all of these countries over the coming months and potentially years, I guess I wonder how subtle is this shift? Is this changing Europe in a way that is going to be obvious to, say, an American traveling to Europe for the first time?

BEIRENS: Yes. I think it will definitely in countries close to the conflict. If you think about 2 million refugees in Poland, it means that every possible empty space in a school, in a gym hall, in a military barrack, in a hospital, anything is taken up. The same in Germany. When you are in Brussels, in Belgium, and the places where people have to register, there's been huge queues in front of these buildings. In Poland, a city of Warsaw is about 1.4 million. They have now 2 million people there. That's the equivalent of, you know, bigger than the biggest city. So this really does shape and color and influence the lives and the landscape of people living in Europe.

PARKS: That was the Migration Policy Institute's Europe director Hanne Beirens. Hanne, thank you so much for being with us.

BEIRENS: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.