Over 7.8 million people have fled Ukraine since conflict began
A boy with his mother in an indoor sports stadium being used as a refugee center in the village of Medyka on a border crossing between Poland and Ukraine, in March. (PETROS GIANNAKOURIS / AP)
This year European countries have faced the largest refugee crisis since World War II, with the Russia-Ukraine conflict displacing millions of people.
As the conflict continues, more people from Ukraine are expected to leave the country this winter, putting Europe under severe stress and testing its ability to handle the human tide.
By this month more than 7.8 million refugees from Ukraine had settled in various parts of Europe since the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out on Feb 24, of which more than 4.8 million were registered for temporary protection or similar national protection schemes, the UN Refugee Agency said.
Neighboring Poland remains the main country of arrival for refugees. Other European countries such as the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Italy and Romania have also taken in many.
After returning from a trip to Ukraine this month, Jan Egeland, head of the Norwegian Refugee Council, said he expects another wave of hundreds of thousands of refugees from Ukraine over the winter, and he says he fears the humanitarian crisis in Europe will only get worse.
The European Union welcomed Ukrainian refugees soon after the conflict broke out. In early March it adopted an emergency plan allowing them to enter its 27 member countries without visas and granting them the right to live and work in the EU for up to three years. Many Europeans also opened their doors to Ukrainian refugees.
The EU has also adopted regulations to unlock funds that will ensure that member states hosting refugees have sufficient resources to meet the growing needs for housing, education and healthcare.
The EU has also taken measures to allow for greater flexibility in the use of EU cohesion policy funds, for instance by extending the possibility to transfer resources between programs and to obtain 100 percent EU financing, as well as by providing for additional pre-financing of projects to offer member states immediate relief.
Hosting Ukrainian refugees could cost EU countries 43 billion euros ($46 billion) this year, according to estimates by the think tank Bruegel in Brussels.
That cost accounts for about a quarter of the EU's overall budget for this year, which was set at 172 billion euros, and is likely to increase with more refugees entering the bloc.
Tian Dewen, deputy director of the Institute of Russian, Eastern European and Central Asian Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Ukrainian refugees in Europe are treated differently to refugees from the Middle East and North Africa.
"Accepting Ukrainian refugees in the first place is politically correct for European countries. Moreover, Ukrainian refugees are highly educated, young and white, and are more likely to integrate into local European society in the future, so they are generally welcomed in Europe."
For instance, about 73 percent of Ukrainian refugees who have settled in Germany since Feb 24 have a university degree, SchengenVisaInfo.com reported.
However, as the number of refugees in the continent has increased, European countries that have faced surging energy prices and living costs find it more challenging to help those in need.
The EU has imposed nine rounds of sanctions on Russia, regardless of the pain inflicted on their own economies and the resulting surge in energy prices and living costs for their people.
In October inflation in the eurozone reached a record 10.7 percent, the European Statistics Office said.
The Polish government said recently that it plans to charge Ukrainian refugees for food and housing once they have stayed in state accommodation for four months.
More than a million Ukrainian refugees have made a temporary home in Poland, Ukraine's western neighbor, since the Russia-Ukraine conflict broke out.
But after an initial outpouring of public support for refugees, resources are drying up, and refugees are having a harder time finding accommodation and getting support, with Poland facing a cost-of-living crisis and budget strains.
"Citizens of Ukraine who stay in Poland in collective accommodation centers will (pay some of) the costs of housing and meals," the government said.
Those staying in such accommodation, for example government-funded hotel rooms or school dormitories, longer than 120 days will have to shoulder half the cost up to 40 zlotys ($8.87) a day for each person. After 180 days this will rise to 75 percent of the cost up to 60 zlotys. The new rules will apply from March 1.
The UK government is cutting the money it gives councils for helping Ukrainian refugees by almost half, blaming pressures on public finances.
Councils will receive 5,900 euros for each Ukrainian refugee who arrives in their area, the BBC reported. Until now that figure has been 10,500 euros.
He Yun, an associate professor in the School of Public Administration at Hunan University, said that recently there have been disputes among countries over migrants, and some European countries have started to change their policies toward refugees.
There are two reasons for this, she said. First, this is the second refugee crisis in Europe in seven years, the first having been a result of the war in Syria. Many local communities are still coping with assimilating those from the last influx in 2015, and do not have the basic infrastructure to accommodate many new arrivals.
"Although initially some local residents took refugees in their homes, this is not a lasting solution as the conflict rages on," He said.
Second, Europe is bracing for a grave energy crisis and a bad economic slowdown. With many asylum-seekers entering Europe, caring for them is putting strains on the already fragile social welfare system. Xenophobic sentiment has gained ever greater support, with many Europeans resenting the fact that they are having to struggle to get through the winter while refugees are given heated rooms and warm food provided free, He said.
As the Russia-Ukraine conflict continues, European countries will face more problems, she said.
Sven Biscop, director of the Europe in the World Programme at the Egmont-Royal Institute for International Relations in Brussels, said that initially many Europeans volunteered to help Ukrainian refugees, often even hosting them in their own homes. However, this wave of goodwill has diminished as the conflict has dragged on. Nevertheless, nobody questions the need to continue to help Ukrainian refugees and support their country's government.
"There are protests across Europe because of high energy prices and the rising cost of living," Biscop said. "But people demand that their government take domestic measures to alleviate that. They are not asking for a change of policy toward Ukraine."
Moreover, Europe's friendly attitude toward Ukraine refugees has drawn claims of double standards by European countries, the allegation being that refugees from other places are treated less favorably.
For instance, countries in Central and Eastern Europe have expressed strong resistance to the EU's program of taking in refugees since the outbreak of the 2015 refugee crisis. Many European countries locked their doors to Syrian refugees as well as those fleeing Afghanistan last year.
There have always been conflicts among European countries on the issue of managing migration, Tian said. Under EU rules the country in which a refugee first arrives is responsible for processing asylum claims. These so-called border countries, such as Italy and Greece, bear the brunt of international turmoil and the surge in illegal immigration and refugees and demand financial support from the EU or ask other countries to share the burden. These conflicts, shown during the 2015 European refugee crisis, persist.
The influx of migrants to European countries may cause discontent among middle and lower classes of society because it will have an impact on their lives and employment.
"In fact, the rise of populism in European countries in recent years is directly related to the influx of immigration," Tian said.
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