The Ukrainian Refugee Crisis: Six Elements of an Effective Response

Professor Christian Dustmann and Professor Ian Preston identify six steps public policy-makers in the EU and the UK can take in response to the latest immigration wave facing Europe, based on lessons learnt from previous crises.

Europe is – yet again – at the brink of a huge immigration wave, and this one is likely to dwarf all the previous ones. Within a week, more refugees have crossed the EU’s borders than during the entire 2015 wave, and this is likely only the beginning. This development poses huge challenges for the EU and the UK. How can we best deal with this new human tragedy, and what are the lessons to be learned from previous refugee waves?

First, we should aim at integrating refugees into social and economic structures immediately. This means avoiding lengthy asylum procedures and bureaucratic red tape and instead providing the immediate opportunity of labour market access. This will not only help refugees themselves, but it will help in creating resources to support those who stayed behind in the form of remittances. Lengthy asylum procedures, uncertainty and exclusion from the labour market have been shown as major factors that have inhibited refugees’ social integration and their future economic outcomes in previous waves.

Second, we must facilitate refugees’ labour market engagement. Refugees are fully unprepared as their flight was never planned – the Ukrainian barrister or doctor or teacher working in Kyiv before the conflict probably had little idea that she would end up a week later as a refugee somewhere in Europe. The labour market is certainly the best integrator, but access needs to be facilitated, and essential skills to efficiently operate in the different EU economies need to be supported. Provision of work opportunities should therefore go hand in hand with training courses, and language has been shown to be the most important single component. Moreover, certifications of existing qualifications should be recognised quickly and pragmatically.

Third, refugees must be allowed to choose where they settle rather than being restricted. In that way they can best find job opportunities, through existing networks of Ukrainians. Previous dispersion policies have often deprived refugees of the advantage of existing ethnic networks and led to allocation to areas with little economic opportunity.

Fourth, the EU and local governments need to be seen to have a clear, coordinated and well communicated plan for dealing with the crisis immediately and in the longer run. Such a plan should provide a staggered and transparent protection strategy, with clear longer term commitments. This is essential not only for the refugees themselves, but also for employers, who will refrain from training refugees if there is uncertainty about how long they will be available afterwards. Moreover, policies across the EU member states and the UK need to be aligned, as different arrangements across countries will lead to subsequent cross-country flows.

Fifth, ways need to be found to engage local populations in the immediate and longer-term strategy. National government should facilitate local support structures which can consist of public institutions, employers, workers, and the public. This reduces barriers and ignorance, provides opportunity on both sides, and leads to more efficient support in particular if the inflows are as large as expected.

Sixth, it is important to foresee the political fallout beyond the immediate stages of the crisis. The wave of empathy toward Syrian refugees in 2015, symbolised by the tragic death of a Kurdish boy at a Turkish beach, gave way quickly to hostility after events in the New Year’s Eve night in Cologne only a few months later. Massive migration flows will inevitably create resentment and anxiety which can be exploited opportunistically by radical political movements. The value of openness, transparency and good communication on all of the points made above is significant.

For the EU, this development is a huge challenge, but it also provides an opportunity to show strength and solidarity in the face of a huge human tragedy. Countries along the Ukrainian border that were most sceptical about accommodating refugees during previous crises are this time firmly committed to humanitarian support. For the UK, this crisis provides an opportunity to illustrate that it and the rest of Europe can unite in the face of human disaster to overcome political differences and effectively respond to humanitarian challenges of this magnitude.

Christian Dustmann is Professor of Economics at University College London and Director of CReAM (Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration), UCL

Ian Preston is Professor of Economics at University College London and Research Director of CReAM (Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration), UCL

CReAM is a research centre within the UCL Department of Economics specialising in labour, migration, and education economics with a focus on policy evaluation.

CReAM hosts the Ukrainian Migration Hub which provides the latest data on displaced persons from Ukraine and the Ukrainian diaspora, as well as information on visa and asylum policies across Europe and beyond.

Photo by Kevin Bückert on Unsplash

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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