Leiden International Studies Blog

Comparing the Ukraine Refugee Crisis With Past Refugee and Migrant Movements in Europe Ukrainian refugees from 2022, crossing into Poland. Source: Wikicommons.

Comparing the Ukraine Refugee Crisis With Past Refugee and Migrant Movements in Europe

The warm reception of Ukrainian refugees in various European countries over the past weeks has provoked comparisons with the cold reception and deportation of earlier influxes of refugees. Historian Brian Shaev explains how you can set up such comparisons in an academically sound way.

We have all watched with emotion countless images of Ukrainians fleeing war these past weeks. Most of them remain in Ukraine. In recent wars, this one included, the number of internally displaced people, an estimated 6.5 million now in Ukraine, far outstrips the number who cross international borders. It is those who cross international borders, though, who receive the lion’s share of attention, sometimes out of media or public neglect, but other times because of the perilous—and now deadly—situation for journalists attempting to report from war zones. And the numbers of Ukrainians who have crossed into Poland, Romania, Moldova, Slovakia, and Hungary in just three weeks (the UN’s current estimates are over 3.6 million) have been staggering. By early March, Western media were declaring the flight of Ukrainians to be the ‘worst’, ‘fastest moving’, and ‘biggest’ refugee crisis in Europe since the Second World War.

In the face of the new, of the unknown, and of the threatening, we often try to come to terms with transformative moments by placing them in comparison with other great events from the past or the present. ‘Worst’, ‘fastest moving’, ‘biggest’, these are words of comparison. Rep. Ilhan Omar, one of only two U.S. Democrats to vote against a U.S. ban on Russian oil, justified her vote in part by comparing the all-consuming, round-the-clock Western media coverage of the Ukraine War with the uninterested silence it has devoted to the now 8-year-old Yemen War, which remains the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world today. The most salient comparison though has been the stream of comparisons between the cold reaction many European countries had to the arrival of migrants from Afghanistan, Africa and the Middle East in 2015/2016, and the warm embrace of Ukrainian refugees today. Many of my students this semester are interested in comparing Ukrainian refugees with previous experiences of refugees and migration in the EU. This blog post is inspired by our class: in the absence of academic materials on the Ukraine crisis, I thought I could give some guidance on how to think about writing comparisons, including some insights from my own research comparing migrant integration in postwar European cities.

Thinking About Comparison: What Are You Comparing and Why?

I began my career as a comparativist and encourage my students to engage with comparative methodologies in history or social science. Comparison is often an excellent approach for Bachelor’s and Master’s theses. Identifying what is unique about an object of study, and what it shares with similar events and processes, is one of the finest tools we have for analyzing and understanding our contemporary world. Comparisons may take many different shapes and forms. It is essential to think carefully about your objects of comparison. In the context of the present refugee crisis, objects of comparisons might be:

(1) Two periods of time, e.g., how did the EU or a member state respond to refugees and migrants in 2015/2016 compared to 2022?

(2) Two cases occurring at the same time, e.g., how does the Polish response to refugees in 2022 compare to the French?

(3) Two different groups of migrants, either from the same time, or different historical times, e.g., how do the Polish treat Africans displaced from Ukraine compared to Ukrainian nationals? Or: How does the German government’s response to Yugoslav refugees in the 1990s compare to its response to Ukrainian refugees today?

Comparing Local Migrant Integration

When setting up a comparison, you will want to consider not only your objects of comparison, but also the topics for comparison. Your research objects and topics, taken together, should make the reader understand why you are conducting the comparison. Why are these objects, and these topics, interesting to compare? Taking an example from my research, I was interested in investigating whether the local government of Dortmund treated the integration of German refugees in the 1940s-1950s similarly or differently to that of guest workers (usually from Southern Europe and Turkey) in the 1960s. The reason for doing this was to observe whether there was evident discrimination on display. One variable (the municipality of Dortmund) remained constant while the other (expellees, Soviet-zone refugees and guest workers) shifted in the comparison. If you are studying the Ukrainian exodus today, analyzing integration strategies, as I explored, is not possible yet, but you can explore topics of entry and the initial reception of refugees by localities and national governments.

Once you have a topic (here local migrant integration), you may want to break down your topic further into sub-categories of analysis. What sub-categories of analysis ‘add up’ to your topic? Relevant examples here might include official government narratives, housing, education, labor market and cultural integration.

Topics and sub-categories may allow in-case comparisons (same city, different migrant groups) but also might foster comparisons between cases. You should be alert that the cases may differ. For instance, some cities may actively pursue integration policies, while others might have a non-policy position, or will focus on different aspects of integration. So you may need to be agile and adapt the topic of sub-categories of your comparison to the specific context you are analyzing and the available evidence.

Working with other historians, I developed a comparative methodology for analyzing local government reception of refugees and migrants that builds on existing social-science scholarship. Depending on the research questions you ask, some of this methodology may be useful for you as well. We argued that, if you want to understand a city’s migration policy, you should analyze city history and identity (how cities narrate their own histories and the place of migrants in it) and local policy arenas (the horizontal interaction between relevant actors in local migrant integration policy, e.g., the city government, NGOs, religious groups, trade unions, and businesses) as well as the vertical interaction between the local, regional and national governments (and, depending on the case, perhaps also the European Union or international organizations). An important ancillary concept is administrative cultures because policy implementation is often contingent on administrative discretion.

The next step to be sure to do is to justify your objects of comparison (why are they comparable)? Our research team compared local migrant integration in postwar Bristol, Dortmund and Malmö. We justified the comparison on the basis that these were all mid-size industrial cities that received large groups of new types of migrants in the postwar era, and that were run entirely or for most of the postwar era by social-democratic governments.

We developed our methodology for local governments, but if you are studying national governments, the same categories are likely relevant as well: national history and identity, and policy arenas (relevant actors and their respective power and interactions). An example regarding the immediate reception of migrants upon arrival are complaints raised by NGOs that the Polish government is taking credit for their work while not dedicating adequate resources itself to reception efforts. In both local and national cases, you may also want to consider economic conditions. For national governments, foreign policy will likely prove important as well for how nations respond to large-scale refugee arrivals.

Comparing Refugee Movements from Ukraine: Some Initial Thoughts

As already mentioned, this semester I have been teaching a seminar course in Leiden, Migration in the European Union. There I discussed the birth of the modern refugee regime after the Second World War, when Jewish displaced persons faced attacks and discrimination when they attempted to return home, especially in Poland. Even German expellees, who had previously been thought to have integrated quickly into postwar German society, faced local discrimination, hostile public administrations, and popular resentments in the 1940s-1950s, though reactions appear to have varied greatly depending on region and locality.

My point there was not that all refugees are treated the same—they are not—but rather that political problems and social resentments have regularly arisen even when there is less cultural difference between guests and host societies than was the case in 2015/2016. In other words, we should expect problems: they are normal in such abnormal situations. People were understandably buoyed by images of the generous welcome for Ukrainians over the last weeks but there are of course already problems, including that some unaccompanied refugee children seem to have gone missing near the Polish-Ukrainian border. African and Indian students fleeing Ukraine have reported discrimination in accessing trains and other transportation to leave Ukraine, and some were attacked by far-right Polish nationalists after crossing the border. Nigerians who fled Ukraine and are now in Calais are also alleging discrimination in the treatment of their visa applications by UK authorities.

How can we compare the Ukrainian refugee crisis with previous refugee movements and crises in Europe? First, we must remind ourselves how early it still is: we are only weeks into the war. Refugee numbers have slowed a bit recently but they could rapidly increase in the event of a sustained Russian attack on Western Ukraine. The suddenness of mass displacement in Europe today differs from what happened in 2015/2016 during the crisis in Syria. Refugee arrivals in Europe were increasing over 2015 (and had been building in the early 2010s) before spiking over the summer months. Solidarity towards migrants fleeing the Syrian Civil War—who made up the largest number of refugees—was initially high in some countries, or at least in major cities like Berlin and Gothenburg (where I witnessed the public reaction as a postdoctoral researcher). It took a few months for the political winds to shift dramatically towards public panic and greater restrictions on movement but, when they did, it inaugurated years of anti-migrant politics in Europe.

When conducting comparisons, we must always think carefully about temporality. Yes, today many Europeans are opening their homes, hearts, and wallets for Ukraine’s refugees. However, what will the situation look like a month from now? And a year from now? Two years? It takes time for social resentments to grow, for refugees to become disappointed with reception conditions, for receivers to talk about the ‘ungratefulness’ of those they are hosting, for political parties and agitators to break taboos and say that public money spent on refugee reception would be better spent on their own nationals.

There are some valid points of comparison we can make already. First is how rapidly and substantively the European Union has responded. A rather hapless actor in 2015/2016, within days of the outbreak of war the Council of the EU invoked the 2001 Temporary Protection Directive to give blanket entry and residence rights to Ukrainian nationals. This directive was handy in part because the 1951 Geneva refugee convention focuses on individual claims to asylum, which would have been paralyzing and time-consuming in this context (but upon which Afghan and Syrian migrants had to rely). It also allows governments to suspend asylum applications until temporary protection expires, which makes the directive attractive to national governments, while affording rather generous terms to Ukrainian refugees, who receive the right to social benefits, residence, and access to the job market.

Before the Ukraine War, I had never mentioned the EU’s Temporary Protection Directive in class. Never invoked before, one of the only academic articles I found on it was titled Waste of Paper or Useful Tool? Focused on the 2015/2016 context, which would have probably been an ideal time to invoke the directive, the author’s verdict was that the directive had proven itself a ‘waste of paper’. That the directive was so quickly raised from the dead in 2022 tells us that something radically different was happening in the EU’s response to Ukraine compared to the previous crisis. Further, that certain member states stripped protections for Third Country Nationals from the Commission’s draft in the EU Council of Ministers is also revealing. Only Third Country Nationals who had permanent residence or had received refugee status from the Ukrainian government were guaranteed temporary protection in the EU, though some states like Spain have chosen to grant them protections anyway. Of course one could claim that Third Country Nationals had their home countries to return to, while Ukrainians could only return to a war zone. It would be hard, though, to escape the intuition that race and national origin were important factors in the policy of limiting the Temporary Protection Directive to Ukrainian nationals, especially if it is confirmed that the member states who voted to strip Third Country Nationals from temporary protection include the usual suspects.

In comparing governments’ responses to different refugee movements, we need to think about which similarities and differences between refugee groups are particularly relevant to explore in our analysis. Migrants in 2015/2016 were more diverse in their origins and came due to a range of motivations; for many, especially Syrians and Afghans, these were directly war-related. For others, there were often a mix of motivations that anti-migrant politicians were able to exploit, a situation that differs from Ukrainian migration today. Another important factor to consider, as unpleasant as it may be, is that Western countries are able to use Ukrainian refugees in support of their geopolitical narratives more so than was the case for other recent refugee arrivals. Some have labelled the Ukraine War part of a New Cold War. The comparison is apt at least for our limited purposes: migration historian Emmanuel Comte has pointed out how rapidly Western countries organized to receive Hungarian refugees fleeing Soviet occupation in 1956. Hungarian refugee reception was a means of Waging the Cold War. Geopolitics made the treatment of Hungarian refugees politically valuable, which appears similar to the situation with Ukrainian refugees today.

As we move forward in time, new areas of comparison relevant for medium to long-term integration, for instance, integration in schools, language integration, or labor market integration, will become relevant areas for comparative analysis. The future direction of research will depend on the scale and extent to which Ukrainian nationals and permanent residents become major population settlements in other European states (in addition to Ukrainian labor migrants who are already there). How many people choose to permanently settle outside of Ukraine, and where, will depend on a combination of the hopes, dreams and choices of Ukrainian refugees themselves, the policies developed by local and national governments and the European Union and, not least, the length and outcome of this brutal war.