Open hearts and borders mustn’t end with Ukrainian refugees

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Anita Mihaeljana is an intern at the International Crisis Group’s Europe & Central Asia program. She is a former news editor and journalist.  

The war in Ukraine has shown that Europeans can quickly take in millions of refugees — if they are willing. 

This is in sharp contrast to the way in which refugees and migrants from elsewhere, such as Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans, have found themselves in refugee camps and behind fences. And the divergence betrays a troubling double standard: Not only is it morally reprehensible, but it is also unwise policy. 

The integration of refugees only lifts a country’s economy and enriches their hosts — not the other way around. 

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In May, when U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres visited Moldova, which has received hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, he said he was glad to see that 95 percent of them there were living with Moldovan families. “Moldovans have opened their borders but have also opened their homes and their hearts with an enormous generosity,” he remarked.  

Now, compare this with 2015. That year, over a million people, mostly from war-torn Syria, sought refuge in Europe, prompting a political crisis. European Union member countries couldn’t agree on how to treat these refugees, and several of them, like Hungary, rejected the the bloc’s quota system, which required refugees from overcrowded camps in Greece and Italy to be relocated fairly between members. 

The government of Latvia, my own country, initially agreed to take in 531 of these refugees under the relocation scheme — but with great reluctance.  

At the time, the government had expressed concerns about accommodating such a large number in a country of just 1.9 million. Nor was it hard to find Latvians who opposed the tiny influx. “Why do they wander around the city in the evenings and stare through our windows?” a pensioner who lived near the country’s only asylum center asked a television reporter. “What are they looking for in a town where people live?” she asked, suggesting they are very unlike us.  

The center had room for only 150 people at the time. And while asylum seekers were taken in gradually, so as to avoid capacity issues, and the center was later expanded to house 450 people, Latvia still ended up taking in fewer refugees than the government had agreed.

Conditions for those seeking refuge in Latvia are also far from great. They aren’t allowed to work until immigration authorities have decided whether to grant them refugee status, which can take over six months. During the interim, they receive Є3 a day to buy food and necessities. If they want to go somewhere, they must cover the cost of public transportation themselves.  

In the spring of 2016, I had the opportunity to talk to some of them, and I met Farhad (his name has been changed to protect his identity), who had fled Afghanistan after being threatened by the Taliban because he refused to join them. I asked him about how he was treated in Latvia, and he said that people were acting oddly. “Why?” he asked. “I came to Latvia and was given shelter, clothes and money. Why should I do anything bad?” Farhad had received alternative status within three months, but he was frustrated the asylum center hadn’t offered Latvian language classes. 

Others I spoke to said they were worried about how they would manage to survive on Є139 per month — the stipend they received once they’d gained status and left the center but had yet to find a job. With this small allowance, they must somehow cover the cost of food and rent for an apartment. To earn more, they would need to work, but at the time, Latvian employers legally couldn’t hire workers who lacked Latvian language skills. 

The number of those who eventually received status and can legally stayed in Latvia is very small. In the 2015 refugee crisis, the government registered 328 asylum seekers, giving refugee status to 6 and alternative status, which is given to those who are in need of protection and are in imminent danger of punishment in their home countries, to 23 others. The rest were deported.  

Many of the unlucky ones escaped from the center and likely tried to reach neighboring countries. And the next year, the same happened all over again. The government registered 350 asylum seekers, granting refugee status to 47 and alternative status to 107. 

Meanwhile, since February of this year, more than 6 million Ukrainians have fled their country. Most have received an unprecedentedly warm welcome and care from governments and citizens across Europe — and that’s good. But at the same time, their reception reveals the unfair discrimination against those arriving from other parts of the world.  

Saying it pained him to admit it, World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus declared in April, “I need to be blunt and honest that the world is not treating the human race the same way,” pointing out that other humanitarian crises received only a fraction of the help given to Ukraine.  

“Some are more equal than others,” he added. 

To date, Latvia has registered some 35,000 Ukrainian refugees. All of them have either found shelter with friends, relatives and acquaintances; were accommodated by the government in hotels; or were welcomed into the homes of compassionate strangers. 

Thinking about how to help these refugees get back on their feet and integrate faster into their new environment, the government has also eased their entry into the labor market. Parliament adopted a law to specifically support Ukrainians, giving employers the right to hire them, even if they don’t speak Latvian. Moreover, Ukrainians now have access to intensive language training, and they can use public transportation for free — at least until the end of this year. 

Meanwhile, the number of volunteers ready to help refugees has increased dramatically. For example, the Latvian Facebook group “I want to help refugees,” created during the 2015 crisis, only had a few thousand members until this year, but currently boasts more than 23,000. And charitable organizations have rightly praised this unprecedented show of solidarity.

However, European countries, including my own, should warmly receive anyone fleeing persecution or the horrors of war, from anywhere in the world. 

This isn’t only the right thing to do morally, but it also makes good economic sense. The proportion of elderly people in Latvia’s small population is steadily increasing, while the number of those of working-age is declining. This means that it’s in our own long-term national interest for the government to put in place sensible mechanisms for refugee integration. 

This incredible story of open borders, homes and hearts must not end with Ukrainian refugees.