Omer Onhon

War in Ukraine, Refugees, Elections and Shifts in Political Landscape

It is now clear that Russia has failed to inflict a speedy and crushing defeat on Ukraine. It has suffered too many casualties including loss of top generals. The Russian General, who was in charge in Syria, has now assumed command in Ukraine. His reputation leads to concern that things on the ground could get worse, as if it was not bad enough.

President Putin’s speech on April 12 reiterated that Russia wants eastern Ukraine. Now, first and foremost, the fight is about capturing Mariupol and the Donbas region and connect them with Crimea.

One of Putin’s justifications for his war in Ukraine was threat emanating from NATO. The irony is, his war has either led to or facilitated so many things which Russia aimed either to achieve or prevent. Just a few examples: NATO is unified; it seems to be on its way for a new wave of expansion with Sweden and Finland; fears of central European and Baltic allies who have been calling Russia a big threat and many other things have been proven right.

Diplomacy is not as visible as it was in the immediate aftermath of the Istanbul meeting. That is mainly because of the outrage caused by atrocities in Bucha and other places. In any event, the warring sides are said to continue to negotiate (online). Hopefully, when the time comes, there will be at least something on the table.

Ukrainian refugees and an overall look at the refugee issue:

According to UNHCR figures, 4.8 million Ukrainians have fled and become refugees since Russia’s invasion. As is the case in all similar situations, neighboring countries bear the burden.

Based on UNHCR data (as of 13 April), number of Ukrainian refugees in neighboring countries are as follows: Poland 2,694,090, Romania 716,797, Hungary 440,387 and Slovakia 326,244.

There is a very positive environment for fleeing Ukrainians.

In Poland they passed a law which gives refugee access to the labor market, health care and social benefits.

Hungary opened its borders. Ukrainians from Transcarpathia with ethnic ties may be one of the reasons, but still Hungary is receiving and hosting Ukrainian refugees.

The EU activated the Temporary Protection Directive which was developed after the war in former Yugoslavia, but never put in use. The EU is offering temporary protection for Ukrainian nationals and nationals of third countries who can prove that they were legally residing in Ukraine before 24 February 2022. The EU package for Ukrainians includes three-year residency permits, with access to all necessary facilities.

The passion and sympathy, assistance mechanisms and smoothness of conduct are in sharp contrast to what we witnessed in the case of Syrian refugees.

Then, the EU was divided as to how to respond. Poland and Hungary led the anti-Syrian refugee camp. EU policy was to keep refugees outside of “Europe” and Turkey was the place to keep them. Largely due to Chancellor Merkel’s efforts, some steps were taken. Germany took in around one million Syrians and agreements of 2015 and 2016 with Turkey were concluded. But central European members of the EU did not comply with these agreements or intra EU arrangements.

Whose problem are refugees?

Every crisis befalls firstly on neighbors. With Syria, it was Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan and Iraq. With Ukraine, it is Poland, Hungary and others.

There are so many crises in the world and so many people are fleeing. If most of them are coming in your direction, the concern is understandable. No matter how wealthy and healthy, every country has a limit to its resources.

But then there is the other side of the coin. Some people view the issue from the point of identity, color, race, religion. Politicians carry the matter to the masses and try to turn it into votes. Things take a different shape.

Prime Minister Orban said in an interview with Germany’s Bild: “We do not see these people as Muslim refugees, we see them as Muslim invaders”. This was in direct reference to people from Syria, and other Middle Eastern and Asian countries.

In another interview in March, Orban drew a clear difference between migrants and refugees. He said that Hungarian border guards are able to tell the difference between who is a migrant (meaning Middle Eastern/Asian with a darker complexion) and who is a refugee (meaning caucasian, light complexion). “Migrants are stopped and refugees can get all the help,” he said.

Leaders of European far-right, including Viktor Orban and Marine Le Pen, met in Madrid in January. The host of the meeting, Santiago Abascal of Spain’s Vox party, said at his closing statement that they (participants of the conference) were the ones who defend Europe and will not allow “the flag of the hammer and sickle to be raised here, nor the crescent flag, nor the dark flag of the globalization elites.”

Far-right anti-immigration and xenophobia was dipped into the sauce of populism. At first, they were few in numbers, then many groups emerged, they turned into political movements, political parties and in some cases, governments.

In Poland and Hungary, the ruling right wing, populist parties and leaders owe their success to a large extent to refugee issues or issues related to it.

Now, all eyes are on France. In the first round of elections, Macron and Le Pen were the frontrunners and they are going to contest in the second round on April 24. The two had faced each other in the 2017 presidentials and Macron had won with 66 percent. This time, Le Pen is said to be as close to winning as never before. At her campaign, Le Pen focused on economic issues but there was always an anti immigrant connection.

What these and other elections in Europe have demonstrated is that center parties struggle to remain at the center of politics, but it is the either ends of the political spectrum which are getting more and more dominant in the political landscape.

What next for refugees?

In principle, refugees should be everyone’s problem. No one country can cope with it alone. Burden sharing and common responsibility are necessary. But this is not always how things work and every case is treated differently.

The general definition of conditions for return of refugees are “safe, voluntary and dignified returns”. In case of Syria, this is out of question. This is a problem for Turkey for instance. Elections are closing in and the issue is definitely on the agenda.

As to Ukrainian refugees, it remains to be seen whether the warm reception is temporary or not. If the conflict in Ukraine prolongs and returns are delayed beyond normal, or if refugees turn into asylum seekers and immigrants, hosts may not be as receptive. Time will show.