Poland, neighbors ready for influx of migrants

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People evacuated from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic walk toward the Russian Emergency Ministry camp in the village of Veselo-Voznesenka on the Azov Sea coast, on February 19, 2022.

Andrey Borodulin | Afp | Getty Images

As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, neighboring countries are closely monitoring the fallout.

Nations across the globe have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Moscow, but the economic and military repercussions of Russia’s Ukrainian invasion are just part of the picture.

The European continent is concerned that a full-blown incursion could lead to a major migrant crisis — the type not seen since World War II — with serious humanitarian, political and societal costs both for Ukrainian refugees and the countries to which they flee.

Indeed, some central European nations are already making preparations.

Poland, which shares an approximately 530-kilometer land border with Ukraine, said last month that it is preparing for up to 1 million Ukrainian refugees, whom they plan to house in hostels, dormitories and sports facilities. Nearby Romania is anticipating migration in the “hundreds of thousands,” while Slovakia and the Czech Republic put estimated inflows in the tens of thousands.

The nature of the evolving situation in Ukraine, however, means the scale of potential civilian displacement is as yet unknown.

“As far as Europe’s concerned, it’s potentially one of the biggest impacts of this crisis,” Oksana Antonenko, director of global risk analysis at Control Risks, told CNBC Tuesday.

A full invasion could displace millions

Ukraine, home to roughly 44 million, saw internal displacement of around 1.5 million people following Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea. Others still moved to Russia.

Russia’s operation earlier this week to capture the rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions was seen as likely to provoke similar internal and eastward migration, though on differing scales. Indeed, many have already been transported to Russia.

But Thursday’s further incursion into central and western Ukraine could have far wider implications, experts have warned.

The U.S. government estimates that an invasion could prompt one to five million Ukrainians to flee the country, and Ukraine’s defense minister put the figure at three to five million. Charity Unicef on Friday also projected that up to 5 million Ukrainians could flee the country.

If that is to happen, we’re certainly talking about hundreds of thousands if not millions of refugees.

Oksana Antonenko

Director of global risk analysis at Control Risks

“If that is to happen, we’re certainly talking about hundreds of thousands if not millions of refugees, and they will most likely be fleeing into Europe rather than Russia,” Antonenko said.

“If you ended up with a Russian occupied Ukraine, then those would be longer term European refugees,” added Rodger Baker, Stratfor’s senior vice president for strategic analysis at Rane.

Poland, Hungary and Slovakia key recipients

In such a case, the lion’s share of people may move overland to border countries: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania. Under EU policy, no visa is required for Ukrainians to enter the Schengen Area — a common travel area among EU countries, which includes all the aforementioned bar Moldova and Romania.

But western European countries such as Germany, France and Britain could quickly feel the moral pressure to share the burden of what the U.K.’s defense secretary said would be the worst migrant crisis “since the war.”

A woman carries her belongings as people evacuated from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic sit in a bus waiting to be relocated.

Andrey Borodulin | AFP | Getty Images

Europe’s preparedness still in doubt

While human rights watchdogs have welcomed the preparations, many have pointed to apparent double standards in central European countries’ willingness to accept refugees.

During the 2015 European migrant crisis, which saw an influx of refugees primarily from Syria, Poland was reluctant to offer asylum. More recently, in 2021, Polish border guards violently pushed back a wave of primarily Iraqi Kurdistan migrants at the Belarusian border.

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