Tens of thousands of Ukrainians are arriving in Eastern Europe, fleeing the Russian invasion of their homeland. Experts predict between 1 million and 5 million could enter the European Union in coming weeks. This time, countries such as Poland are opening doors that were previously closed to others seeking asylum.
Grabbing any form of transportation they can, many Ukrainians are crossing their borders in search of safety. This group of refugees is arriving in Poland by train.
Others wait for hours to cross by car or walk kilometers to reach border points with Poland, Romania and Slovakia. Ukrainian men aged between 18 and 60 are not allowed to leave, they are supposed to be defending their homeland.
“We have, with all the frontline member states, explicit contingency plans to welcome and host immediately those refugees from Ukraine,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
She has outlined European Union plans to support Ukrainian refugees and those internally displaced by the conflict through its humanitarian aid office, known as ECHO.
“And [as far as] internally displaced people are concerned we have a lot of support through ECHO humanitarian aid — shelter and all the necessities people who are internally displaced immediately need,” she added.
While the EU hopes there will be as few Ukrainians seeking asylum as possible, she said, Europe is prepared to welcome them.
The United Nations fears that up to 5 million Ukrainians could seek refuge in neighboring countries, including up to 3 million in Poland.
That is far more than there were during the 2015 migrant crisis, when 1.3 million Syrian, Afghan and other asylum seekers from conflict-torn countries flooded into Europe, the most in a single year since World War II. Germany granted asylum to many of them.
Eastern European countries such as Poland and Hungary, though, were reluctant to take them in. Hungary even built a border fence. Earlier this year, Poland also began building a border wall to prevent a new wave of Middle Eastern asylum seekers from entering from Belarus.
Today’s welcome is different. Poland is opening reception centers along its over 500-kilometer border with Ukraine. Poland’s interior minister says Warsaw will take in all the Ukrainians who arrive.
Here in France, far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen also affirmed her support for taking in Ukrainian refugees — even as her party earlier petitioned against a massive influx of refugees from Afghanistan.
Refugee rights groups welcome today’s open doors but they are concerned about discriminatory treatment of asylum seekers.
“Absolutely this kind of difference in treatment is something that we fear and that we see. With Ukraine, countries might be more inclined to keep their borders open. But we will see how this develops,” said Ole Solvang of the Norwegian Refugee Council.
Still others fear that if the conflict in Ukraine drags on, Europe’s welcome mat may be less welcoming than it is today.