Central Europe will need serious assistance from the West to ensure that the region can host and provide all services needed to the fleeing from war Ukrainians and safeguard democratic societies, write Jakub Wisniewski and Vladislava Gubalova.
Jakub Wisniewski is a Board member of GLOBSEC and former Polish Ambassador to the OECD. Vladislava Gubalova is GLOBSEC’s Senior Research Fellow.
More than 2 million children have fled Ukraine since the war began. Some travelling with their mothers and grandmothers, others cross the borders alone. They are tired, fearful, and confused.
Arian, a 7-year-old at the Przemysl train station in Poland, refuses to sleep because of fear of bombs. Tatyana’s children near the Medyka border crossing in Poland often refuse to speak and bite their nails until there is blood. In another case, an 11-year-old boy crossed the Slovak border alone with a plastic bag and a phone number written on his hand.
Central Europe (CE), a region refusing to accept the relocation of a few thousand refugees in 2015, shocked the world by opening its borders to millions of Ukrainians.
They rushed to help and provide immediate assistance—accommodation, food, transport, even psychological help. But with time, the urgency will subside, the welfare state in the Central European countries will strain, the make-up of the societies will change, conditions of life might be different, and the public opinion of the local populations will begin to shift.
What Central Europe is doing now is the right thing. Still, it will need all of the support from its Western partners to ensure its ability to support Ukrainian refugees and to sustain its society.
According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, over 4 million Ukrainians have left their country, with more than 2.3 million entering Poland, 400,000 in Hungary, 300,000 in Slovakia, and 300,000 in Czechia. Germany has registered around 270,000- similar to Slovakia, a country 14 times smaller.
Other more populous countries like France, Spain and UK have registered about 25,000 each.
Each day, thousands more are arriving, and each new wave of refugees will be harder to welcome and process by the CE countries. The sheer number of fleeing citizens and the shift in the type of short and medium-term needs to be provided are already resulting in pressure.
Poland received refugees equivalent to 6% of its population, Slovakia 5%, Hungary 4%, and the Czech Republic 3%. While the initial flow of fleeing Ukrainian citizens were those with some family around Europe, today, there are predominantly women and children without any connections, increasingly traumatised people who have seen bombardment, death, and desolation.
Since 2015, the Visegrad Four (V4) countries adamantly refused to accept the mandatory migrant relocation quota policy. Eventually, Slovakia admitted 16 and the Czech Republic 12, from the 9000 that should have been relocated.
Even just a few months ago, when Belarus’ Lukashenka used migrants from the Middle East to create tension on the border between Poland and Belarus, the Polish government applied a rather brutal and cynical method of pushback. It certainly did not open its borders to the stranded migrants. Society was supportive of these government policies.
It is not hard to notice the difference in acceptance of fleeing refugees now. The war in Ukraine is at the border of the Central European countries, they are their neighbours, who also carry similar racial and religious features. And, CE, like the rest of the world, was shocked by the naked brutality of Russia (invading its neighbour and ‘brother’).
While societies in Poland, Slovakia, Czechia and Hungary have been quick in organising immediate assistance upon border crossing, the CE governments have issued exceptions for the incoming Ukrainian refugees allowing them to stay and work temporarily, access the healthcare system, apply for benefits, and have free use of motorways, trains and public transportation.
Fast processing through special centres helps the fleeing Ukrainians get national ID numbers, and schools have been instructed to find space for the new children. It is all well-intended and the right thing to do, but it will be harder to implement and sustain these activities while ensuring countries’ prosperity and welfare system stability.
WHEN THE DUST SETTLES
Most of the fleeing Ukrainians will stay longer in the CE region because of the mental closeness to home and the similarity in language and culture. Images from Ukraine show the extent of infrastructural destruction, with homes, businesses, and schools in rubble- there is nothing to go back to.
The CE societies will re-shape, with Ukrainian minorities reaching 10% of the population. When temporary assistance ends, tensions might occur between the newcomers and the existing minorities, often heavily dependent on welfare benefits.
The ability to start work immediately will also re-structure the make-up of businesses, with more Ukrainians as colleagues. For some countries like Poland, this is not a new phenomenon, but its scale will be. For countries like Slovakia and Hungary, with a strong presence of Serbian workers in the auto industry, new colleagues will speak Ukrainian.
Soon, problems will be unfolding regarding the welfare state and conditions of life. Governments from CE have already been seeking more EU finds to be provided for sustaining through the pressure on the healthcare systems.
The size of housing measured in the number of rooms per person is the lowest in Central Eastern EU countries among all EU states. Romania (1.1 rooms), Croatia, Latvia, Poland and Slovakia (all with 1.2 rooms on average per person) score lowest in contrast to Malta (2.3 rooms per person), followed by Belgium and Ireland (both 2.1 rooms). With the new arrivals settling, there will be competition for these scarce resources.
As the societies in the region grow accustomed to the grim picture of war, the conditions of life change with higher prices for goods, gasoline, and energy—especially in the context of higher inflation and the post-pandemic effects—the undeniably large scale of compassion will subside. People in CE would want to go back to normal, and with the new reality, some backlash is to be expected.
These developments, which will start to be seen in public polls sooner than most think, will be quickly exploited by populist politicians that have gone silent but have not gone away. The barely united societies we see now in supporting Ukraine and assisting Ukrainian refugees will not hold for too long, exposing the deep polarisation in Poland, Slovakia, and Hungary.
The truth is that the CE region will need serious assistance from the West, be it the EU and the US, Canada, and Australia. On the one hand, making sure that the region can host and provide all services needed to the fleeing from war Ukrainians, and, on the other hand, to safeguard democratic societies, not polarise further and become fertile grounds for dangerous national politicians.
Ultimately, this story is positive. The CE countries have stepped up to the challenge this time. This is an opportune moment for the region to gather credibility globally, for the West to strengthen its image in the region, and most importantly, to support Ukraine and Ukrainians.