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Ukraine Refugee Crisis: An Interview with Ernesto Castañeda

Castañeda talks about the future of more than 3 million refugees torn from their homes in Ukraine

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Burko, Summer Heat
Photo Credit: Matt Brown, Creative Commons

In the fastest-growing refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, more than three million Ukrainians have fled their nation since Russia invaded on February 24. Millions more might not be far behind. How will the world absorb so many people so quickly? Short term, what will they need in terms of food and housing? Long term, how will they survive and assimilate in other countries? 

American University sociology professor Ernesto Castañeda is an expert on immigration and the parallel processes of immigrant integration and exclusion. He is the founding director of the Immigration Lab, which conducts research on “all things migration,” and studies the well-being and opportunities offered to refugees. We asked Castañeda to answer our questions about this catastrophic humanitarian crisis.

Q. According to the New York Times on March 15, nearly three million of Ukraine’s 44 million residents have left the country, and experts estimate that this number will continue to rise dramatically. How can the rest of the world absorb so many people in such a short period? What will this look like? 

A. This is a tragic and challenging situation for all refugees. The important thing is that by moving, they are staying alive. Welcoming refugees is a relatively simple and easy way to save lives.

The aggregate numbers sound overwhelming. The images of buses arriving in ports of entry and shelters in neighboring countries make it look like a crisis. Nonetheless, the problem will be solved one family at a time. The refugees will settle through time. Human societies change and adapt all the time. Work, affordable housing, healthcare, and strong public schools will take care of the essential needs of newcomers. Europe is strong in these areas.

Q. So far, most of the refugees have gone to Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania and Moldova — some of the poorest countries in Europe. Do you worry that their hospitality might wear out? How will these nations manage the long-term needs of Ukrainian refugees, like housing, education, and health care? 

A. In the short term, all refugees can use some help and resources, but as research shows, soon after they arrive, refugees and immigrants become largely self-sustaining, and in the medium- and long-term, they are a net benefit for the communities that welcome them. This is a significant loss for Ukraine, but economically speaking, this is excellent news for Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and any other country receiving them because these arrivals will help with population and economic growth there. This is especially important given that many European countries were experiencing population decline, which COVID exacerbated.

Q. The world has been watching all of this unfold on television, and it’s especially difficult to see so many children and elderly people suffering. Can you share some of the special challenges faced by very young and very old refugees, especially when traumatized by war? 

A. Exile and having to escape violence and war can produce PTSD, but right now, everyone’s job is to survive. The youngest will adapt the fastest, and the elderly will have a more challenging time adapting to their new environments. This war is producing family separation at incredible speeds, with many fathers, uncles, and grandparents staying behind in Ukraine and extended families spreading further. Many families made this hard decision to save both country and family. Losing and separating for an undetermined period from close family members is another cost of the war and the resulting emigration. 

Q. Europe’s overwhelmingly supportive response to Ukrainian refugees seems in direct contrast to how poorly many European countries have treated refugees from Africa and the Middle East. Is this true, and why is this the case? 

A. This is true. This is partly due to the false belief that people who are “culturally closer” have an easier time assimilating. All people adapt, and sometimes what may be seen to third parties as minor differences become a big deal when living abroad. Framing Ukrainians as fellow Europeans fleeing war has been a successful frame in garnering sympathy.

The other three elements of this welcoming are 1) geopolitics, Ukrainians are correctly seen as the innocent victims of an unfair war waged mercilessly by a common foe; 2) racism, people seem to prefer welcoming blonde, blue-eyed people than people from the global south; 3) aporophobia, the dislike of poor people and the false belief that all refugees are uneducated and will stay poor.

Similarly, a recent directive by the US Customs and Border Protection allowing Ukrainians to enter the US at the border with no visa or immigration papers is another reminder that the label of “refugee” is not a scientific one, but one determined by geopolitics.

Q. No matter what happens in the war, it’s hard to imagine that most of the refugees will be able to return to Ukraine for a very long time. Can you bring readers through what might happen to these people in terms of assimilating to new countries and cultures and jobs, etc.?  

A. What refugees will miss the most will be friends, neighbors, and their everyday routines. Some of them may return to Ukraine later on, and they should have the opportunity and choice, but it is better for everyone to plan as if they will not. Refugees have to find a safe place where they can stay and rebuild their lives. They will have to learn fast to acquire new languages and cultural practices. They will use their education and skills to make a living and contribute. Immigrants and refugees want to integrate into their new homes. Welcoming policies, legal contexts, and people can accelerate this process and make it more successful in a win-win process. 

So, the problem is not the arrival of people from abroad, but a bloody war of imperial expansion. There is little that people outside of Ukraine can do to stop the destruction of its cities and civilian deaths, but they can welcome people to their cities to decrease the number of casualties.