Solidarity, gratitude, bitterness, resentment: the Ukrainian refugee crisis is getting complicated

·4-min read
Solidarity, gratitude, bitterness, resentment: the Ukrainian refugee crisis is getting complicated

I approached this story with some apprehension.

"Go out there and report about what happens when reality settles in", my editor-in-chief had told me. "The good and the bad things. The complexity of the issue".

Conflicting emotions

Things turned out to be really complex.

Three months after the start of the war in Ukraine, more than 5 million refugees have transited through the European Union. Some have since returned home. Many have stayed.

I had to report on the day-to-day life of those who have stayed. How do they feel? How are they coping with their grief and pain? What are their sorrows, fears - and their hopes?

But equally importantly, I had to report on the feelings of the host populations. Volunteers have provided a huge help. Are they still committed? Or are they starting to feel worn out? And, if that is the case, why? What was the tipping point?

And then, this very uneasy question: what about migrants from other continents, equally in need of our empathy and support? Are we treating them as we are treating Ukrainians? If not, why not?

Two host nations with very different histories

From the beginning, my choice was to go to two very different European Union countries. One with a direct border with Ukraine and with, until now, limited experience in dealing with a huge refugee crisis.

That was Slovakia.

Another with a long history of difficult issues with immigration, but much further away geographically from the war.

That was France.

Slovakia: a bighearted welcome but signs of strain

I was somehow unprepared for what I discovered in Slovakia. The country has been tremendously generous to its neighbour. 80,000 Ukrainian refugees have so far settled there. Another 360,000 have transited through the country. Near Bratislava, I met the Karliuka family; mum, dad, three children and grandad. They all came from Kharkiv.

I have been surprised at how willing people here have so far been to help us out

The Karliuka family was helped to settle in Slovakia by Diana Balakarieva from the Help for Ukraine Refugees NGO, which raises money to support those fleeing the war from the Kharkiv region. They have been offered a house at no cost to them, internet and energy included. The mum has been helped to find a job as a teacher; the dad, as a factory worker. The older children attend a local school. Slovakia, they told me, has been amazingly bighearted towards them.

"Help, help all the time. Day and night," Olga, the mum, told me.

But then I went 550 kilometres to the east, right on the border with Ukraine. There the story is different. I met locals who volunteered to help right after the start of the war. But they have grown resentful. They accuse some refugees of abusing people's goodwill, of doing shady business with humanitarian goods, and of being aloof and demanding.

Maybe it’s a harsh term, but what we have now is an aversion towards the Ukrainians.

"Maybe it’s a harsh term, but what we have now is an aversion towards the Ukrainians," Patrícia told me behind the bar of the restaurant she owns, scarcely two kilometres from the border. "Most people here are trying not to generalize or draw stereotypes. We definitely have to keep helping, but not everyone deserves the help that we’re offering them".

France: claims of double standards

The complexity I found in France was somehow different. The Hauts-de-France Region, in the north of the country, crystallizes this difficult debate. I went to a sports arena where 29 young Ukrainian athletes are hosted with great care. They train, eat and sleep at the complex.

"We have everything we need", one of the young athletes told me. "These are dream conditions to live and train".

NGOs here have applauded this initiative, but wonder why just 100 kilometres away, in exactly the same region, many other migrants who are also fleeing wars and conflicts don't merit the same opportunities. So I went to Calais, where migrants from Eritrea, Sudan and Afghanistan survive in really harsh conditions in improvised camps.

We also are escaping from war, but here we spend years on the streets.

By chance, on the day I came to film, many of these refugees were playing football in a barren wasteland: a totally different world from the smart sports facilities offered to Ukrainians.

"We also are escaping from a war," a migrant from South Sudan told me. "But here we spend years on the streets."

How long will the solidarity last?

Different as their situation might seem, both countries looked to me to be asking relevant questions about the realities and limitations concerning the European Union's hosting of refugees in the current context.

How long can solidarity last without destabilizing our societies - one way or another? Are we prone to a double-standard empathy depending on the origin of the migrant and/or refugee? Ultimately, these are the kinds of questions the report tries to answer.

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