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Ukrainian refugees – are we reaching the limit of inclusive societies?

27 December 2022

This is the last of three blog posts that were published in 2022 on the European Citizen Action Service’s website in the framework of the Civil Society Hub for actors addressing populist movements. These blog posts are the result of a collaborative efforts of the members of three task forces – “Democratic Progress”, “Diverse Participation” and “Inclusive Societies”. You can find the previous articles, “Democratic Progress in the 21st Century” here and “Ensuring Diverse participation” here.  Author of this post is Simeon Stoyanov, ECAS.

Ukrainian refugees – are we reaching the limit of inclusive societies?

In February of 2022, the Russian invasion of Ukraine triggered a mass migration of people, the largest in Europe since World War II. Women, children, and older adults, who had experienced trauma as a result of the invasion, were met at the western border of Ukraine by humanitarian workers; the European Council subsequently activated the Temporary Protection Directive, which allowed Ukrainians to work and access social welfare within the EU. This marked the first time the directive had been utilized since its creation following the breakup of Yugoslavia. To date, more than 4.2 million Ukrainians have registered for temporary protection under the directive throughout the EU.


Why has there been such support for Ukrainian refugees?

In comparison to previous refugee waves from other parts of the world, acceptance for Ukrainians fleeing the war has been extremely high. Why is this the case? The conflict in Ukraine has had a strong impact on Europe, both because of its geographical and cultural proximity and because of the clear political dynamics of the conflict. Many people in the region have personal connections to Ukraine through the widespread Ukrainian diaspora and shared Slavic linguistic roots, which has contributed to a greater ability to empathize with and understand the situation. Additionally, the clear identity of the aggressor and victim in the conflict has made it easier for people to choose a side. In contrast, the more complex conflicts in places like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and, in the past, Yugoslavia have not elicited as strong of a response. This may be partly because the proximity of Ukraine allows for a greater understanding of the dynamics of the conflict, and partly because the media coverage is not ambiguous in placing the blame for the conflict.


A recent study of the Migration Policy Centre puts this into perspective, based on a study carried out with citizens of Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. There was a high level of support in all eight countries for accepting Ukrainian refugees, which is in contrast to the more negative attitudes towards other groups of refugees.

Inclusivity being tested.

There are concerns not only for Ukrainian refugees who are already settled in the EU, but also for those expected to arrive this winter. As the temperatures drop, it is expected that more people seeking refuge from the war in Ukraine will try to find shelter in the countries in the European Union, according to international organizations. Recent Russian strikes on civilian areas, including energy infrastructure, cause concern that these attacks would lead to further displacements of Ukrainians. If there is a new influx in winter, the situation will be more difficult than it was for those who arrived in the spring, as even in countries like Poland, which has been supportive of Ukraine, special benefits for most Ukrainian refugees, including subsidies for their hosts, have been withdrawn.

On this backdrop, support to accept further refugees is declining across citizens of EU27, recent study shows:


Over time, it is common for the unconditional solidarity with war refugees to weaken in host countries. This can be exacerbated by the rising costs of living and can be used by populist to drive further divisions in societies. In Central and Eastern Europe, a common issue is the benefits that refugees receive. There is a narrative in these countries that the government cares more for refugees than its own citizens, and this is often exacerbated by far-right parties. For example, in Slovakia, complains were raised about the free public transportation and lunch vouchers provided to Ukrainian refugees by the government. In Bulgaria, a pro-Russian party called Varazhdane, which has the support of about 10% of voters, spreads fake news about Ukrainian refugees, claiming that many Bulgarians live in poverty and that the state and EU should focus on them instead of Ukrainians.


How to bring support back up?

Being pressured by worsened economic reality and fake narratives being spread by populist politicians, acceptance of Ukrainian refugees will most likely continue to decline in coming months. The antidote to this are sustainable policies for integrating those running from war and showcasing the good examples. Firstly, given the profile of the Ukrainan refugees – predominantly women and children –  action should be taken on providing adequate schooling and support to youngsters. There are already models emerging that can be applied in more EU countries. In a number of member states, there are programs available to help refugees learn the local language. These programs range from personalized learning plans in Sweden and Finland, to multilingual tools provided by the European Commission. Portugal, Lithuania, and Spain offer bilingual materials in Portuguese and Ukrainian, while France and the UK have immersion programs with language support. Romania also has 55 schools that teach in Ukrainian and these will now try to accommodate refugee children when possible. On the other hand, in order to help societal integration and counteract discrediting narratives against them, inclusion in the labor market is key. In Germany, 350,000 Ukrainian refugees are seeking employment, and there are 900,000 job vacancies. Surveys suggest that up to 50% of Ukrainians have found a job, but there is a mismatch between their skills and the available jobs, which can lead to de-skilling and depression. The main barrier to employment is a lack of German language skills. In Poland, the unemployment rate is 2.7%, and Ukrainian refugees are welcomed due to the aging population and a labor shortage. The government and private sources have provided $3.4 billion and $2.1 billion in aid, respectively, for Ukrainian refugees in the form of language classes and childcare. Approximately 1.2 million Ukrainians have received social security numbers, and around half have found a job. The World Bank predicts that the presence of Ukrainian refugees will have a medium-term impact of 1.5% on economic growth in Poland.