A welcome for Ukrainian refugees, but not those from the Middle East

Eastern European governments show a high degree of solidarity towards Ukrainian asylum seekers fleeing the conflict provoked by the Russian invasion. But these same governments continue to resist asylum seekers from the Middle East. Irene Landini explains the geographical, cultural and political factors behind this contradiction

‘Open arms’ policy for Ukrainian refugees

More than 300,000 Ukrainians have fled to the European Union since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The main destination countries so far have been those bordering Ukraine: Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Hungary.

Poland is the most popular destination. Polish citizens have actively mobilised to take Ukrainians into their homes, facilitating travel through the border, feeding and clothing them. The Polish Minister for the Interior, Kaminski, has declared that the Polish borders are open to all Ukrainians, regardless of their legal status. The governments of Slovakia, Romania and Hungary are ready to proceed in the same way.

A different reception for asylum seekers from the Middle East

This stance contrasts sharply with these countries’ earlier treatment of asylum seekers from Syria and the Middle East. Since the 2015 refugee crisis, more than one million asylum seekers have attempted to enter EU territory via the Belarusian borders to Poland and Hungary.

Poland has taken extreme steps to stop Middle Eastern asylum seekers getting in. As a result, people have remained stuck in the forest, without assistance

In response, the Polish and Hungarian governments have refused to take in their share of asylum seekers. Poland has even established military-controlled border fences to stop asylum seekers getting in, declaring a state of emergency along its forested region that borders Belarus. And the Polish government restricted access to the region to media, journalists, and aid organisations. As a result, asylum seekers (mostly from the Middle East, especially Syria, Afghanistan, and Yemen) remained stuck in the forest, in sub-zero temperatures, without adequate medical assistance.

The influence of history

This seemingly contradictory behaviour by the Polish authorities has precedents in the contemporary history of Europe. Solidarity towards asylum seekers has changed over time, and differs according to the asylum seekers’ background.

Between the end of WW2 and the 1980s, the political climate towards asylum seekers was generally positive. The Cold War pushed Western European states into being open to asylum seekers from Eastern Europe, emphasising the difference between the free, democratic West and the communist bloc. Communist authorities managed to strengthen border controls in Eastern countries, thus significantly reducing the number of people arriving in Western Europe.

From the mid-1980s, everything changed. A significant portion of public opinion shifted in the direction of widespread fear and distrust towards asylum seekers. National governments’ new priorities became concerned with preventing their arrival in their national territories. The exponential increase in the number of asylum seekers arriving only increased these fears, and the resulting restrictions.

Among the new arrivals, the percentage of non-Europeans grew, while their literacy rate decreased. Most Europeans saw them as people who were not fleeing from communist countries. Their conflicts were largely unknown to Europeans, so there was little emotional attachment, feeling of identification, or empathy. The same restrictive policy line was adopted by several (notably East) European states in response to the most recent flows of people from Syria and the Middle East – a consequence of the Arab spring and the 2015 refugee crisis.

Geography, culture, politics

So, how can we interpret the 'open arms' approach from Polish and Eastern European states today towards Ukrainians? War atrocities in Ukraine cannot be the sole explanation. Similar events are taking place in other parts of the world, including Syria and Yemen. Solidarity with and support for asylum seekers seems shaped by geographical, cultural and political factors. These are easily susceptible to change.

Solidarity with and support for asylum seekers seems shaped by geographical, cultural and political factors

The war in Ukraine is somehow felt as emotionally much closer to home. This is probably because of the geographical proximity and the great degree of attention it is receiving in the European and national media. Ukrainians are de facto European citizens (and thus, somehow inherently able to integrate into European societies), despite close cultural links with Russia. The Polish and Hungarian governments may also feel that Ukraine’s accession to the EU will bring some advantages to them. Ukraine may share several political and economic interests with the Visegrád group, further reinforcing it.

In the meantime, almost nobody understands what is going on with the war in Yemen. The world’s attention on Syria is declining. Lack of or insufficient information delivered by the mass media, geographical distances and a perceived cultural distance make conflicts in the Middle East less relevant in the eyes of the European population and its governments. Finally, at this stage, the number of Ukrainians fleeing war is still manageable by the receiving state authorities. It remains smaller than the number of people fleeing Syria and the Middle East.

How long will the ‘open arms’ policy last?

The UN estimates the number of asylum seekers from Ukraine will increase to five or six million over the coming weeks. Eastern European states are not equipped to handle such a volume of people. This may create internal tensions and foster new feelings of fear and distrust among the population.

The UN estimates the number of asylum seekers from Ukraine will increase to five or six million over the coming weeks

In such a (not so improbable) scenario, national governments may change their policy lines to more restrictive positions. Will the current favourable attitude towards Ukrainians last when the number of asylum seekers increases yet further? Or will Ukrainians face the same fate as the Yemenites and Syrians, stuck in bordering regions?

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Irene Landini
Irene Landini
Postdoctoral Researcher, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Antwerp

Irene is a social researcher specialising in international migration and immigrant integration into host societies.

She is interested in investigating the main obstacles to and the strategies prompting integration in the domains of welfare and formal education.

In January 2024 she joined the Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Antwerp, on a Young Universities for the Future of Europe (YUFE) postdoctoral scholarship (a European-funded scholarship).

Irene is a member of the Network Migration and Global Mobility, and of the Edubron (Educational research with impact) research group at the University of Antwerp.

She is also a research fellow at the Centre for Migration Studies, University of Essex.



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One comment on “A welcome for Ukrainian refugees, but not those from the Middle East”

  1. At the end of 1990s Putin became the leader of Russia by staging his first KGB style military operation – bombing Moscow apartment buildings to gain popularity and re-start the war in Chechnya. Putin killed his own innocent civilians, hundreds of Russians in order to boost his popularity and gather more war support. The US, EU and NATO should have seen his true face then, but decided to ignore Putin’s Chechnya war crimes and welcomed Putin to red carpet meetings and Bush even declared his trust in Putin. This further emboldened Putin who had suppressed all democratic processes internally in Russia and has successfully become a dictator and tyrant.
    Putin’s first test run to settle his political goals with military adventures and military operations was in Georgia in 2008. In August 2008 Putin attacked Georgia’s Samachablo and Abkhazian regions and successfully annexed territories of a sovereign country. What did the US and EU do? Obama administration decided to do reset policy with Russia – greatest mistake of President Obama and Angela Merkel, who kept closest relations with Putin and did not want to upset Putin. Russia was not even hit with bare minimum of sanctions for conquering Georgia’s two regions.
    This further encouraged Putin to find more military solutions to his political issues and goals. As Georgia’s President Mikheil Saakashvili said “Ukraine, Crimea will be the next!” the EU leaders laughed at him. In 2014 the new reality sets in – Putin did order and conquered Crimea and Eastern Ukrainian regions. At that time the Obama administration and Angela Merkel received first reality check from Putin, but they made the second greatest mistake with Putin: They set bare minimum of sanctions, did not punish Putin for violating the international laws and let him get away again!
    This has turned Putin into a strong dictator backed by US dollars and EU Euros for the Russian energy exports and every time barrel of oil went above $100, Putin fired rockets and ordered military adventures. In Syria Putin had committed number of atrocities against civilians and used chemical weapons. What consequences did he face? Absolutely nothing, verbal condemnation by the international community.
    And now we are in 2022. As the barrel of oil shot above $100 and Putin ordered massive invasion of Ukraine, suddenly the world woke up to new reality. However, the reality was established during the 1990s when Putin planned and executed the Moscow apartment bombings, the US/EU/NATO decided to ignore the warning signs and tried to welcome Putin into the international community.
    What is happening now in Ukraine should be the wake up call to the entire world. The post World War 2 international system & the world order has been shattered to pieces and international law had been completely ignored without any consequences by Putin again and again.
    What Ukraine needs is the world to come to terms with reality: Putin has to be defeated and the establishment/elite power structure of the Kremlin has to change. Before this happens, the Ukrainian military MUST receive all necessary lethal defensive and offensive weapons as well.
    The Ukrainians need to have anti-air capability to shoot down incoming missiles and airplanes from much higher altitudes, so the S-300/S-400 systems will be much welcome, however this is not enough. The Ukrainian army needs those MIG29s to enforce its own No Fly Zone, since the western powers are too scared to face Putin over even a limited No Fly Zone over humanitarian corridor. So lets give this power to the Ukrainians?
    What the Ukrainian side needs is Patriot missile systems as well and anti-artillery systems: radars, locators and smart artillery systems from the US.
    The above-mentioned weapons systems would have an immediate impact on the ground and will change the formula on the ground by giving Ukrainians much needed upper hand to control the air and protect the civilians from the #1 major killers: incoming artillery shells and missiles.

    Slava Ukraini! Glory to Ukraine!

    David Dzidzikashvili
    Ph.D. Candidate
    Business & Technology University – BTU
    Tbilisi, Georgia

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