The Russian invasion of Ukraine has triggered an unprecedented wave of displaced people across Europe in what’s been called the fastest-growing refugee crisis on the continent since World War II.
Over 2 million refugees, most of whom are women and children, have entered neighbouring countries like Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Moldova and other parts of Europe, where they have been warmly received with food, aid, shelter and other services without delay.
The European Union, for instance, passed a historic deal offering Ukrainian refugees protections and rights usually reserved for EU citizens – including border-free travel, access to healthcare and education and the right to work – for up to three years anywhere in the EU territory. In the UK, the government recently launched the “Homes for Ukraine” visa scheme, enabling British residents to sponsor and host Ukrainian refugees in their homes. Slovakia has taken it a step further by providing financial support – as much as €200 per person per month – to incentivize locals to shelter arriving refugees.
This tragic historical moment has shown what can be achieved when the international community rallies behind a society in need. It also serves as an example of what humane, hospitable refugee policies could look like for all civilians fleeing conflict and persecution regardless of their religion, race or birthplace.
In recent years, refugees from countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar or Sudan have often been met with resistance. In some cases, they have been turned away altogether. In others, they have been subjected to arduous, lengthy asylum procedures. But what if the Ukrainian refugee response signaled a shift in perception and policy for all asylum seekers? What if it shows society that refugees can come from any walk of life – that anyone can be displaced instantly?
“The Ukrainian crisis has created a bridge for Europeans to connect and empathize with refugees with which they feel a cultural kinship,” says Talimka Yordanova, CEO of the Global Citizen Forum (GCF). “Taking a long-term view of the situation, the positive response to Ukrainian refugees could open countless doors for existing refugee communities outside of Europe, potentially normalizing the issue and leading toward more humane solutions.”
Heartbreaking as it may be, tragedies such as Russia’s war on Ukraine have historically galvanized people, bringing them together to create positive change following crises. The famous French sociologist Emile Durkheim called this “collective effervescence” – post-disaster periods of collaboration and progress, when people are “brought into more intimate relations with one another, when meetings and assemblies are more frequent, relationships more solid and the exchange of ideas more active”.
Durkheim argued that crises such as wars or natural disasters can act as catalysts for social solidarity, proving to be transformative periods for those affected. With more British individuals and Europeans opening their homes to Ukrainian families with each passing week, perceptions about refugees will likely shift along the way. We could see more tolerance and acceptance, less fear of the unknown, a deeper understanding of refugees’ plight, and an end to the stigma.
GCF’s Talimka hopes the world could be entering a transitional period – a time when human connection and like-mindedness replace stigma and stereotypes.
“To be a ‘refugee’ means that someone was forced to flee their home,” says Yordanova. “Underneath that superficial label are people like you and me with professions, families, parents, children. They have hopes and dreams for their lives, whether they’re Ukrainian, Syrian, Afghani or Sudanese.”