Seeking Refuge: Central Europe balks at refugees. But then there's Ukraine.

Central Europe, and Poland in particular, could be key to easing the EU's migrant crisis. The region has been cold to the idea of taking in refugees – but Ukraine conflict could force the issue.

Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters/File
A woman pulls her shopping trolley as she walks past a building that was damaged by shelling in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, in October 2014.

Schools, businesses, and local shops had all closed down in the conflict-ridden town of Donetsk in eastern Ukraine last year. But it took tanks to drive Svitlana, a mother of two, from her home.

She headed west, first to Lviv in western Ukraine. But when she and her family were told they had to leave the shelter where they were housed, she headed farther west, crossing the border into Poland, where she lodged an asylum claim.

“Going back to Donetsk wasn’t an option,” she says on a recent day in a refugee center for single mothers on the outskirts of Warsaw.

Staying in Poland might not be, either, at least with her refugee status. Like other European countries, this central European nation has denied almost all of the increasing asylum requests from citizens of Ukraine. And the tepid welcome Poland has shown Ukrainians is illustrative of the mood throughout eastern and central Europe regarding responsibilities and obligations amid an unprecedented wave of migration.

From Poland to Hungary to the Czech Republic, many countries are more accustomed to sending emigrants than receiving immigrants – and many of them want to keep it that way.

The most deadly and pressing elements of the current migration crisis are focused on the southern Mediterranean. But pressure is coming from the east, too. And Poland could emerge as a key powerbroker for the region – not just if a refugee crisis takes shape in Ukraine, but also by setting the example in the region as the EU scrambles to get all 28 members of the bloc to see the refugee problem as their concern.

Already the EU is struggling with that mission. A quota program that would have forced nations to accept migrants failed – in large part from protest in Central Europe, including Poland.

"There is no incentive for central European countries to accept relocation. They don’t see it as their problem,” says Elizabeth Collett, director of the Migration Policy Institute Europe in Brussels. Yet Poland might find it needs to change its position. “[Poland] could be looking over its shoulder at Ukraine ... and realiz[ing] that they might need their own emergency relocation in due course.”

Apathy in Central Europe

The number of displaced people in Europe shot up by 50 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Most of that was driven by movement across the Mediterranean, through a smuggling network that’s extended from Libya to Italy, and which the EU has set out to destroy. But two-thirds of migrants into Europe last year entered from outside the Mediterranean corridor.

That has rattled central Europe. Hungary – which has had a sudden influx of Kosovars – announced last month that it would erect a 109-mile-long wall along its southern border with Serbia. Their applications for asylum surpassed those of Syrians in the first quarter of the year, according to the statistical agency Eurostat. Almost all of them were lodged in Germany and Hungary.

And in Slovakia, nearly 200 protesters were arrested when the group Stop the Islamization of Europe gathered in the capital, Bratislava, recently. One of the thousands who rallied was Marian Kotleba of the far-right People's Party Our Slovakia, who greeted crowds with the words, “I wish you a nice, white day.”

Such movements, similar to the anti-Islamization Pegida movement in eastern Germany, find fertile ground where there is little immigration, as fears of the unknown take shape. In the Czech Republic, there were only 355 applications for asylum in the first quarter of the year, compared to 73,120 such claims in Germany. But “Islamophobia is rampant here,” says Petr Kratochvil, director of Institute of International Relations in Prague, precisely, he adds, because there are so few Muslims.

The governments of Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia were firmly against the mandatory relocation of 40,000 Syrians and Eritreans from Italy and Greece, one of the reasons the plan failed last month.

And the Polish public backs their government's position. A poll by Millward Brown for TVN television station showed that 63 percent of respondents were against accepting more refugees, compared to 32 percent in favor.

What about Ukrainians?

But Ms. Collett in Brussels says that if Poland were to back the EU plan, it could help bring the rest of Central Europe on board. And it could safeguard itself if the Ukraine crisis is prolonged, a point that Malgorzata Wozniak, a spokeswoman for Poland’s Ministry of Internal Affairs, acknowledges.

"Taking into account the situation in Ukraine, we must have in mind that Ukrainians could seek help and shelter in Poland,” she says, “so Poland should be prepared for different scenarios.”

So far the number of Ukrainians seeking refuge in Poland is small. But proportionally, it has surged. Ukrainian citizens registered 46 claims for asylum in Poland in 2013; that rose to 2,318 a year later. This year is on pace to match or surpass that rate. Almost none of them have gotten refugee status, because Poland, like other European countries, argues that refugees would be safe in western Ukraine, says Rafal Kostrzynski, a spokesman for the UNHCR in Poland.

Michal Bilewicz, from the Center for Research on Prejudice at the University of Warsaw, says that Poles generally have a positive view of Ukrainians, especially after the crisis with Russia. And he says most Poles are not xenophobic, but they fear for their jobs – something that national policy has exacerbated. 

Refugee centers are set up in poor regions with high unemployment rates because they are administered by private companies looking at the bottom line. “The main reason why people think about refugees as a threat for them, are economic fears,” he says. And, he adds, “if hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians suddenly come to Poland and seek help here, that could change the way people think of them.”

In turn, it could also harden their position on Europe’s refugee crisis more broadly.

Still, some 400,000 Ukrainians live in Poland, most taking advantage of liberal visa laws, which Svitlana plans to do if her request is denied. “I would like to stay in Poland. I've got no place to go.”

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