Migrants, what we can learn from welcoming Ukrainian refugees

Migrants, what we can learn from welcoming Ukrainian refugees


2022 will be remembered as a historic year for the refugee movement in Europe. Since February 24, the date that kicks off the Russian invasion of Ukraine, more than 7.5 million Ukrainians have fled their country. Most of them ended up in neighboring Poland (5.4 million), Hungary (1.2 million), Romania (1 million), Slovakia (690,000) and Moldova (573,000). Figures that, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), have not been seen in the Old Continent since the Second World War.

And what about Italy? Data from the end of September indicate that over 170,000 Ukrainians have crossed our borders, including over 90,000 adult women and 49,000 minors. Lombardy and Emilia Romagna above all, then Campania where one of the largest Ukrainian communities in Europe has lived in Naples since the end of the 1990s.

However, several hundred thousand refugees are returning or have already returned in Ukraine, although it is not known how stably. Why do they do it? Because they are persuaded by the relatively peaceful situation on the western border between Ukraine and the European Union, or because of the large number of separated families that sooner or later have to reunite - for men aged between 18 and 60, let us remember, it is still forbidden to leave Ukraine. Furthermore, many Ukrainians are convinced that it will be possible to enter and leave the EU without insurmountable obstacles for many more months.

Finally, the Ukrainian counter-offensive and the Russian withdrawal from the outskirts of Kyiv, from Kharkiv and perhaps soon also from Kherson played their part in this return flow. On the other hand, the influx of Ukrainians into Western Europe greatly facilitated is the temporary protection regime guaranteed to Ukrainians by the whole EU, which guarantees the right to work, health, education, housing and social support finance for up to three years. This regime also includes countries that have given large preferences in recent years to parties openly hostile to immigration, such as Italy and Hungary, governed by the nationalist right. In the first case sympathetic to Russian President Vladimir Putin until the outbreak of war, in the second still allied, at least from an ideological point of view, with the Kremlin.

More than eight months after the start of the war, and at the light of the new tug-of-war between the government in Rome and the NGO ships entering Italian territorial waters, a balance could then be made to understand whether the model for welcoming Ukrainian refugees could also be applied to other asylum seekers from Africa, from the Middle East and Afghanistan.

A new migrant profile

What has leapt to the eye since the first days of the crisis is how Italy and the Union have been very more welcoming of Ukrainians than asylum seekers of other nationalities, subjected to violent push-backs by the Union's border agency Frontex and stigmatization by the conservative media.

Charlie D'Agata, Kyiv correspondent of the US TV network Cbs, said months ago that "this is a relatively civilized, relatively European city, where you don't expect this to happen". Peter Dobble, the British presenter of Arab TV Al Jazeera, described Ukrainians fleeing the war as belonging to a “prosperous middle class. They are obviously not refugees trying to leave the Middle East. Nor do they try to get out of Africa. They look like European families you could live next to."

Despite these positive prejudices, a certain "fatigue" is slowly emerging about the fate of Ukraine in Europe, also due to a winter that promises to be difficult from an economic and energy point of view. The internal and global context could push the US administration and NATO allies to press the Kyiv government for greater willingness to compromise with Putin, so as to prevent a crisis of solidarity. The disappointment of the Trumpians for the midterm elections could only partially stop this reasoning.

Even without admitting the weight of implicit racism towards other migrants, it must be admitted that Ukrainians have a post-emergency migratory profile (to use NGO slang) of a rather new type for the European experience. According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development , compared to other refugees, Ukrainians on average have a higher level of education and more solid social networks to rely on, and easier access to the labor market. These are people who were firmly rooted in their place of origin, who worked there and who had no desire to leave.

“ Refugees who fled from Ukraine have no desire to stay too long in Italy or elsewhere because, in large majority, they perceive their presence as temporary ”, says Andrea Belfiore, coordinator and logistician for Emergency. For this reason, in Italy, about 159,000 refugees have applied for and obtained a residence permit for temporary protection, and only a few thousand instead have taken advantage of it to request asylum (or international protection). " The vast majority of Ukrainians aim to return home, and asylum would prevent them from doing so. In addition to the fact that the application would remain unanswered for years, given the Italian and European practice ", Belfiore always explains

However, given that women and children make up up to 90% of Ukrainian refugees, there are specific challenges in their reception that cannot be underestimated: the schooling of children, the language barrier and the work of their caregivers. Without forgetting the necessary emotional and psychological support, especially for the little ones traumatized and disoriented by the war.

Poland had made available around 300,000 places in its schools for Ukrainian children, places available for the next school year, but placement is problematic, especially in large cities. The civic development of Ukraine has taken care of meeting the European logistical difficulties, with thousands of children who have continued to take lessons abroad in distance learning, without weighing on the accounts and spaces of the host country.

Each for himself

The Ukrainian diaspora within the EU has also been helping the European response to this crisis, with over 1.4 million Ukrainians already present in Poland before the war , 250,000 in Italy and many more elsewhere. Therefore, a large percentage of refugees have reached family members or acquaintances, asking for hospitality without waiting for state help. The incidence of reception in structures or foster families is small: 15 thousand people who, not knowing anyone in Italy, have entered the circuit of widespread reception by associations and non-profit organizations. According to the Social Editor, just over 12,000 Ukrainians - the poorest and most disadvantaged - were instead housed in the infamous Extraordinary Reception Centers (Cas).

Among those entitled to temporary protection, those who had access to the system public reception were therefore less than 10%. The Italian State, instead of assisting the Ukrainians from start to finish, has preferred to limit itself to simplifying their life for entries and making one-off contributions to individuals. As in the case of the 40 million euro contribution allocated in early October by the Civil Protection, which should go to cover checks for 300 euro per month for a maximum of three months for a few thousand people. The story of Oksana that we told at the beginning proved to be the norm.

In Italy, the burden of welcoming the Ukrainians has in short been largely offloaded onto private individuals, with the State taking advantage of a migratory profile more manageable in the short and medium term than others, giving up a widespread and programmed reception, also with a view to long-term integration. “ A gigantic failure of the public system ”, commented Gianfranco Schiavone , president of the Consorzio Italiano Solidarietà - Ufficio Rifugiati Onlus.

For this reason, even if the welcome given to Ukrainian refugees in Europe remains impressive, it is unlikely to become a model of similar engagement with refugees from other countries, or the beginning of a radical rethinking of reception policies. No country, let alone Italy, was prepared to handle the numbers of Ukrainians in such a short time, and if the impact was managed without shocks it is because everyone managed as they could and privately. Europe knows how to support refugees in a humane way, but support still depends on who the refugees are.

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