By RFE RL
By Tony Wesolowsky
(RFE/RL) — It is the largest displacement of people that Europe has witnessed since World War II.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, more than 6 million people — mostly women, children, and the elderly — have fled to other European countries, primarily the European Union.
Shocked by the brutality of the Russian onslaught, desperate and dazed Ukrainian refugees were mostly welcomed with open arms in the European Union, with concerned citizens rallying to help and governments immediately providing shelter and aid.
While Brussels has made clear that this assistance will continue, there has been talk of “Ukraine fatigue” — from both politicians and EU citizens, many of whom are struggling themselves amid a sluggish economic recovery since the COVID-19 pandemic. With the war now grinding on for nearly two years, wider support for Ukraine is said to be waning, so the argument goes, as Kyiv’s military finds itself bogged down in its counteroffensive.
Many experts, however, are skeptical of any high levels of “Ukraine fatigue,” and point to Russian disinformation for much of the phenomenon.
Europe’s Migrant Crisis
As of November 21, more than 6.3 million people have fled Ukraine since February 2022, according to data from the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency. Europe alone has taken in 5.9 million Ukrainian refugees.
The EU acted quickly and, 10 days after Russia’s invasion, unanimously passed a law that grants protection to Ukrainian nationals fleeing the country, activating the Temporary Protection Directive for the first time since its adoption in 2001. To register under the scheme, Ukrainian asylum seekers only need show an ID card or passport. This fall, EU interior ministers have extended those measures, which were set to expire in March 2024, for another year.
Migration has proved a contentious and divisive issue within the EU over the past decade. It was the defining issue of the Brexit referendum in 2016, which resulted in the United Kingdom leaving the EU, and has contributed to the rejuvenation of Europe’s political far right.
In 2015, a record 1.3 million people requested asylum in Europe, after perilous and sometimes deadly journeys across land and sea. The majority of the new arrivals were fleeing the Syrian civil war and the brutal takeover of the Islamic State extremist group. EU member states were split: there were squabbles about how many refugees each country should take in; some members felt strongly that it was the bloc’s moral duty to accept as many refugees as possible; others felt the opposite, preferring to build walls and put up fences.
Even with all the hardship and uncertainty, Ukrainians are adapting well when compared to the experiences of other refugee groups, says Jean-Christophe Dumont, the head of the International Migration Division at the intergovernmental Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). In Poland — already home to a robust Ukrainian community — 71 percent of refugees from neighboring Ukraine have found work, according to March statistics. In Germany, the employment rate was lower, with 24 percent of refugees polled in June having found work.
Despite the disparities, the figures are impressive, Dumont told RFE/RL in a phone interview. “These employment rates are outstanding for the Ukrainians, many of whom arrived just one year ago. There are many reasons for this. [They] were given access to the labor market from Day 1; many were highly qualified; there were labor shortages; and they could rely on Ukrainian communities that already existed in many places,” he said.
For the first months following the 2022 invasion, Poland hosted more Ukrainian refugees than any other country. Proximity, the existence of established migrant communities, and a familiar language and culture meant Poland was a natural fit for Ukrainians. Now, though, many refugees are choosing Germany instead. Nearly 1.2 million Ukrainians were registered in Germany at the end of September, compared to some 958,000 in Poland, according to EU statistics.
Why Germany? A recent report by EWL — a Polish-based employment agency that conducted research with the Center for Europe at the University of Warsaw — concluded that Ukrainians are better integrating into German society than Polish. According to the report, the budding network of Ukrainians in Germany was a key factor, as people already settled in the country could help friends and acquaintances make the move. Compared to other countries, Ukrainians cited in the EWL report said that Germany offered higher wages, compulsory language courses, more generous benefits for refugees, and better health care.
While many Ukrainians have successfully integrated in their host countries and are settling into their new lives, the strain is starting to show across the European Union, which is already dealing with rising inflation and economic stagnation, the lingering aftereffects of the coronavirus pandemic.
With inflation hitting record levels and more than 27 million underemployed or unemployed in the EU, providing benefits, housing, and new jobs for migrants is becoming increasingly difficult. A recent report commissioned by the EU found that “solidarity fatigue” toward Ukrainian refugees was the result of the gloomy economic outlook across the EU. “The cost-of-living crisis has hit low- and medium-income families in host societies,” Lodewijk Asscher, the European Commission’s Ukraine adviser, wrote in the report.
In Berlin, there are not enough shelters for the more than 10,000 migrants who have applied for asylum in the German capital this year alone. “The situation is not very good at the moment,” Sascha Langenbach, the spokesman for the state office for refugee affairs in Berlin, told AP in late September. “This is much more than we expected last year.” By the end of the year, Berlin is expecting to welcome a further 5,500 migrants, in addition to the 11,000 Ukrainian refugees the German capital has already taken in.
Berlin is not an outlier, and the squeeze on resources and budgets is taking its toll elsewhere. Other German towns and cities are finding it hard to provide refugees with money and housing to cope with the crisis. More than 220,000 people applied for asylum in Germany between January and August of this year — most of them from Syria, Afghanistan, Turkey, Moldova, and Georgia — and around 240,000 people applied the year before. That number, however, pales in comparison with the 1 million refugees who arrived in Germany between 2015-16, the majority fleeing war and persecution in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
The dismal economic situation across the EU has led to member states cutting state funding earmarked for Ukrainian refugees. An unidentified official at the German Finance Ministry was quoted on September 25 by Reuters as saying that Berlin is planning next year to halve federal aid to states to cover expenses related to receiving and integrating refugees.
The only country to outspend Germany is Poland, which allocated 15.4 billion euros ($16.6 billion) for refugees over the same period, providing free access to education, health care, and family benefits.
But like Germany, Poland has announced it could cut outlays for Ukrainian refugees next year. Polish government spokesman Piotr Muller told Polsat News on September 18 that aid for refugees may not be prolonged into 2024, or at least maintained at the current level.
Things may change, though, with new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, whose government was sworn in on December 13, ending eight years of nationalist rule by the conservative Law and Justice party. Addressing parliament the same day, Tusk said he would “loudly and decisively demand the full mobilization of the free world, the Western world, to help Ukraine in this war.”
The Czech Republic, which has spent an estimated 3.9 billion euros on aid — the third-highest amount in the EU — has already reduced state contributions for Ukrainian refugees. In June 2022, parliament cut social benefits for new arrivals and Prague closed a key migrant center in the capital amid right-wing populist claims that some refugees from Ukraine, namely Roma, were indulging in “benefit tourism.” And in July, housing benefits for Ukrainian refugees in the Czech Republic were drastically cut.
Paradoxically, any refugee fatigue that might exist comes as the number of Ukrainians arriving in the EU is way down, says the OECD’s Dumont. Monthly grants of temporary protection in EU+ countries — the 27 member states plus Norway and Switzerland — are down from 200,000 between July and September 2022 to 80,000 for the same period in 2023, according to data published by Eurostat.
“Net flows of migration from Ukraine to Europe in the last 12 months have been close to zero. So, the question about the need to support large groups of Ukrainians has somewhat faded away,” Dumont told RFE/RL.
Life In Limbo
As Ukrainians carve out a new life in Europe, many are grappling with a more existential issue, one that is keenly felt by refugees all over the world: the yearning to return home. Even though the war has no end in sight, many refugees are adamant that someday they will return to Ukraine. A recent survey by the UNHCR found that 67 percent of refugees in EU countries and EU candidate country Moldova hope to return to Ukraine permanently, but only 14 percent plan to do so in the next three months.
That day might not come anytime soon. Ukrainian refugees “are in their host countries to stay — for the next few years or more,” Shelly Culbertson and Thomas S. Szayna wrote in a July blog post for the RAND Institute, a U.S-based think tank. “Our 2021 RAND study found that, since 1980, only about one-third of all refugees worldwide were back in their home countries a decade after hostilities ended. Return rates to Ukraine may likewise turn out to be low,” the two analysts predicted.
Ukrainians often face a “waiting dilemma,” the European Commission’s Ukraine adviser Asscher said, a state of limbo where they are conflicted about integrating in their host countries because of their yearning to return home.
That has meant more and more refugees are moving back and forth between Ukraine and their host country. According to UNHCR data shared with RFE/RL, the number of daily border crossings from Romania, Moldova, Poland, and Slovakia has now reached close to 35,000 for the period August to October, an increase from the 18,000 people who crossed in the first two months following the February 2022 invasion.
Despite the sluggish economy and a war with no end in sight, polling in the EU on support for Ukraine and Ukrainians reveals a more complicated picture.
Surveys by Eurobarometer, which monitors public opinion across the EU, have consistently found strong support for Ukraine since Russia’s 2022 invasion. A recent Eurobarometer poll found that 86 percent of people living in the EU approve of the bloc continuing to provide humanitarian support to the people affected by the war; 77 percent are ready to welcome to the EU refugees fleeing the war; and 71 percent back imposing economic sanctions on Russia.
Other polls, however, show signs of growing dissatisfaction. Polling by Germany’s Bertelsman Foundation in late 2022 found that more than 70 percent of people support EU countries accepting refugees. But between March and September of this year, that figure fell. In France and Germany, support fell by 12 percentage points; in Belgium and the Netherlands, by 11 points; in Poland, 10; in Italy, eight; and in Spain, four.
Polling in Poland over the summer also found that support for Ukraine was waning. In a study released in August by the University of Warsaw, 85 percent of those polled were in favor of supporting Ukraine in its war with Russia. But the share of respondents with a strong preference in favor of Ukraine fell to 40 percent in June from 62 percent in January. Moreover, the survey found that, “for the first time, we are dealing with a situation when the majority of Poles (55 percent) are against additional aid [to Ukraine].”
A poll from the Czech Republic painted an even grimmer picture. The Prague-based STEM Institute for Empirical Research found that 43 percent of those polled said their attitude toward Ukrainian refugees had worsened since the beginning of Russia’s 2022 invasion. Furthermore, just 51 percent supported Ukrainian refugees remaining in the Czech Republic. “Czech society is very conservative, closed, and prefers to stick with what it knows,” Jaromir Mazak, a co-author of the survey and the director of research at STEM, told Czech Radio.
Conservative, already skeptical about supporting Ukraine, and feeling the pinch economically — a demographic that experts say is especially susceptible to disinformation about Ukrainian refugees.
EU officials have accused the Kremlin of whipping up anti-Ukrainian sentiment within the bloc, especially on social media. “Russian disinformation actors try to exploit public mood and political discourse in the EU member states to sow doubts, confusion, fuel resentments, [and] undermine the trust of the public in the local authorities,” Peter Stano, the EU foreign affairs spokesman, told RFE/RL.
According to Mazak, of the 40 percent who oppose providing any assistance to Ukrainian refugees “about 15 percent” hold strong pro-Russian views. “They feel that the war is provoked by NATO and Russia is basically just reacting. Or that Ukraine is an enemy country,” Mazak said.
“In some countries more than in others, Russian narratives and disinformation find fertile ground, not only with people but also with some local politicians and political actors. This is due to the historical context, mentality, culture, and other aspects,” the EU’s Stano said. Russian diplomatic missions around the world have been flooding social media in their host countries with fake news or misleading narratives, he added.
Julia Smirnova, from the U.K.-based Institute for Strategic Dialogue, has monitored these social-media smear campaigns. “Since the start of the full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Russian state and pro-Kremlin actors have been spreading numerous false and misleading claims against refugees from Ukraine,” Smirnova told RFE/RL in e-mailed comments.
In October 2022, Smirnova’s institute looked at Russian-language discussions about refugees on Telegram and found that the narratives differed depending on the target group. With Russian audiences, the Kremlin line is that refugees from Ukraine are fleeing the supposed “Nazis” who rule the country. But with European, non-Russian audiences, the narrative is that refugees are dangerous, ungrateful, and prone to violence and crime, Smirnova said.
Poland has been targeted by what the Warsaw Institute think tank called “full-spectrum disinformation campaigns” directed by the Kremlin. In a September report, the institute concluded that such disinformation included “false reports” on social media, implying that Ukrainian refugees were responsible for “burglaries, assaults, and rapes…in Przemysl and elsewhere in eastern Poland.”
But despite the Kremlin’s ability to “exploit the country-level individual prejudices and biases,” Szayna said, some degree of “refugee fatigue is an expected phenomenon.” In fact, the very notion “that Europe is ‘tired’ of Ukrainian refugees, [along with] portraying ‘refugee fatigue’ as fact,” Smirnova said, is a smear in and of itself.
- Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.