The current exodus of Ukrainians into Europe in the wake of the Russian invasion of their country ranks as one of the worst refugee crises in modern times. And so far, Ukrainian refugees have been met by an outpouring of support in Europe and some other countries. However, as we examine in this paper, whether migrants receive welcome, and for how long, varies based on context, geography, and numerous other factors.
There are certainly some unique aspects to the current Ukraine crisis. The number of Ukrainian refugees now numbers more than 5 million in the two months since the invasion, with the UN high commissioner for refugees warning that it could become “Europe’s largest refugee crisis this century.” It could also be the fastest. For comparison, during the last European refugee crisis from 2015 to 2016, nearly 5.2 million refugees arrived from the Middle East and North Africa over two years.
The majority of Ukrainian refugees has fled to Poland, which has encouraged this, saying anyone from Ukraine is allowed visa-free entry and receiving refugees at nine reception centers. Volunteers have flocked to major receiving cities offering assistance. Yet Poland is already strained, with some shelters near the border restricting how long refugees can stay and reports that the government is relying mostly on an overextended network of nonprofit groups for critical support. There have also been troubling reports of racism, particularly at the Polish border.
In contrast, in the Americas, with millions of arriving asylum-seekers over the last several years, the U.S. and Mexico have taken strong measures to deter or prevent migrants from arriving at the border. This group mostly comes from the Western hemisphere, but some Ukrainian refugees who made their way to the U.S.-Mexico border have also been denied entry.
Below we look at various regions that have faced refugee and asylum influxes, their responses, and the different degrees of welcome or rebuff they have received.
Though many people have rightfully pointed out that Ukrainian refugees are facing a much warmer welcome than Syrians and other Middle Eastern and North African refugees received during the 2015 migration crisis, many then were initially welcomed in scenes similar to Ukrainian refugees. In late 2015, volunteers and cheering crowds greeted refugees at train stations in Germany and volunteers gathered on Greek beaches to provide aid to exhausted families arriving from Turkey. But the welcome was uneven from the start, with Hungary constructing a fence to keep out migrants and Poland refusing to take the quota of refugees suggested by the European Union under its Temporary Protection Directive. The welcome continued to falter as European nations disagreed on how to best share responsibility for the crisis, and in January 2016, the sexual attacks in Cologne, Germany on New Year’s Eve led to rising anti-immigrant sentiment in that country. Seeking refuge in Europe became increasingly difficult for Syrians, and over the next few years they faced harsher and more hostile treatment.
Several decades earlier, in the early 1990s, Europe faced another refugee crisis during the Bosnian war with an out-migration of Bosnian Muslims who were initially met by a similar spirit of ‘German generosity.’ German churches, NGOs, and individuals acted to secure housing and resources for refugees after the German government requested that individuals sign an affidavit pledging to personally support and pay for their care. The German public expected the situation in Bosnia to resolve quickly, but as the war dragged on, it became clear that Bosnian refugees might be in Germany for longer than many expected. German support declined, and as private generosity waned, Bosnians had little government protection to fall back on, having only been granted temporary protection. In December 1995 when the Dayton Peace Accords officially ended the war, German politicians signaled their intention to repatriate Bosnians quickly. In October 1996, they announced they would forcibly repatriate over 300,000 Bosnian refugees, despite warnings that Bosnia was not ready for return. Ultimately, the German government returned more than 75% of Bosnian refugees to Bosnia.
While the trajectory of these events seems similar, the context in which they occurred differed in how they impacted public sentiment. In the 1990s, Germany was recovering from the Cold War and was in the process of reunification. Adding a migrant flow, the likes of which the country had not experienced in two decades, added to the stress the country was under and likely contributed to the relatively short-lived welcome. It is also important to note that Bosnian and Syrian refugees were Muslim and a visible minority in the population they were entering. The role that race and religion play in the attitudes toward refugees cannot be discounted.
The recent influx of evacuees to the U.S. from Afghanistan was met with massive public support—between 72% and 81% of Americans supported efforts to resettle Afghans in the U.S. More than 68,000 Afghans have since relocated to the U.S. with little backlash, suggesting that in some cases, welcome may last well past the initial crisis stage.
After the initial exodus of evacuees from Afghanistan, resettlement efforts have been slower to proceed. The Afghan Adjustment Act has not been passed, and despite indications that many Afghan allies remain trapped in dangerous circumstances, evacuations from Afghanistan have slowed to a crawl. There is a gap between the Biden administration’s welcoming rhetoric and its policy.
Historically, Americans have rarely supported asylum for displaced migrants seeking protection. U.S. Polls from the late 1970s showed that most Americans did not support admitting refugees from Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War, despite strong support for resettlement from both the Ford and Carter administrations. Majorities of Americans also opposed accepting Hungarians in the 1950s, Cubans in the 1980s, and Haitians in the 1990s.
The American response to Afghan evacuees shows that there can be a large-scale, positive shift in public opinion when it comes to welcoming refugees. But again, context is important—in the case of Afghanistan, many Americans felt a sense of responsibility toward Afghans who had assisted the U.S. military. Polling showed that Americans were more supportive of resettling Afghan military allies than at-risk Afghans who did not work alongside U.S. troops, though a majority did support resettling at-risk Afghans.
Since 2014, more than 6 million refugees have left Venezuela amid an ongoing crisis. Most Venezuelans, approximately 5.4 million, have remained in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Colombia taking in the largest number. Venezuelans were initially welcomed across the region. Colombians especially were sympathetic, as in the 1980s and 1990s Venezuela had received large numbers of Colombian refugees. Venezuela has traditionally been a receiving country of refugees, but the situation since 2014 has flipped migration dynamics in the continent on its head, as traditional sending countries become receiving countries.
But attitudes shifted as the Venezuelan crisis wore on and it became clear that Venezuelans were not soon going to be able to return to their country. A Gallup poll from October 2020 showed that 69% of Colombians had an unfavorable view of Venezuelan migrants. Negative attitudes and hostility toward Venezuelans exists throughout the region, especially in Ecuador, Chile, and Peru. This has led many Venezuelans to make a secondary journey to the U.S., with encounters of Venezuelans at the U.S.-Mexico border increasing almost 3800% from fiscal year 2020 to FY2021.
Despite worsening public opinion, the Colombian government has continued to make forward-thinking policy, extending 10-year temporary legal status to 1.7 million Venezuelans at the beginning of 2021. But government actions have also been inconsistent—in December 2020, just weeks before announcing the temporary status policy, President Iván Duque declared that undocumented migrants would not receive COVID vaccinations.
The case of Venezuelan refugees again demonstrates that initially warm welcomes from neighboring countries do not always last. While Venezuelan refugees and migrants were initially welcomed warmly, this support eventually declined as many residents in receiving countries grew weary and increasingly resentful of the protections granted to migrants. The case of Venezuelan refugees also demonstrates that government action and rhetoric regarding refugees can be inconsistent—at times granting refugees protections and encouraging acceptance, while at other times failing to push back on rhetoric that stokes tension and division between residents and those seeking refuge.
Though responses to refugee crises have differed based on context, geography, and a multitude of other factors, these stories generate warnings for the coming months. While the initial response to Ukrainian refugees has been inspiring, history shows that warm welcomes do not always last. It is imperative that as the number of refugees inevitably rises, governments continue resettlement efforts and ensure that sufficient humanitarian aid is provided to support both refugees and the countries receiving them.
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