EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said “I don’t know how many will come,” replying at the special meeting of EU interior ministers in Brussels, when asked what influx of refugees from Ukraine she expects. “I think we will have to prepare for millions.”
By Sunday, four days after the Russian attack began, at least 200,000 people, mostly children, women and elderly men, had entered Poland, according to the Polish Border Guard. Men considered fit for military service are currently not allowed to leave Ukraine.
Estimates by the United Nations and refugee organizations put the number of people fleeing the Russian invasion at 4 to 7 million. How many will then actually want to cross Ukraine’s borders depends entirely on how the military situation in this war develops. Yet how long they want or need to stay depends on who wins or ends this war. If Russia stops its attacks and withdraws, the families could also quickly return to their fathers, sons and brothers, EU officials believe.
What is clear is that the expected arrivals will far exceed the so-called “refugee summer” of 2015, when about 1 million refugees and asylum-seekers arrived in Central Europe, primarily to Germany, from Syria’s war zone.
To date, the EU member states have not been able to find a solidarity-based distribution mechanism for such refugee flows. Legally speaking, the states of first entry are responsible for processing the asylum applications. But countries like Poland, Hungary or Austria in the past have at times refused to accept asylum-seekers at all. Solidarity on the migration issue has been the biggest bone of contention in the EU. But the situation now is completely different.
“It’s war in Europe again for the first time, and that is also leading to a different way of thinking among member states,” German Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said at a meeting with her European counterparts in Brussels. She sees it as a “total paradigm shift.”
All refugees from Ukraine are welcome, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen promised. “Everyone who has to flee Putin’s bombs will be welcomed with open arms.”
Initially, many European countries including Germany welcomed refugees in 2015, though the mood changed as the numbers grew.
Now, conditions are different because immediate neighbors are fleeing war; something that Europe no longer thought possible.
The vast majority of people from Ukraine are staying with relatives or friends in Poland, Slovakia, Hungary or Romania. Polish authorities say that special accommodations have hardly been tapped — so far.
There were reports that people from Africa who lived in Ukraine and wanted to enter Poland were harassed or turned away at the border by Polish border guards. A South African Foreign Ministry official tweeted that South African students were turned away at the Ukraine-Poland border, while African embassy staff are working to help compatriots enter the country from Ukraine at Polish border crossings.
In Brussels, Ylva Johansson made it clear that the border was also open to people from third countries who lived in Ukraine and wanted to travel on to their home countries. “Those people must be helped. Moreover, those in need of protection in the EU can also apply for asylum.”