Ukraine's Neighbors Brace for Millions of Migrants as Russian Invasion Escalates

Andrey Borodulin | AFP | Getty Images
  • Europe is closely watching the fallout from Russia's invasion of Ukraine, with implications reaching far beyond the military and economic.
  • The continent is concerned that a full-blown incursion could lead to a major migrant crisis, with serious humanitarian, political and societal costs.
  • Neighboring Poland, Romania, Czechia and Slovakia have already begun making preparations for inflows of up to a million people.
People evacuated from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic walk toward the Russian Emergency Ministry camp in the village of Veselo-Voznesenka on the Azov Sea coast, on February 19, 2022.
Andrey Borodulin | Afp | Getty Images
People evacuated from the self-proclaimed Donetsk People's Republic walk toward the Russian Emergency Ministry camp in the village of Veselo-Voznesenka on the Azov Sea coast, on February 19, 2022.

As the crisis in Ukraine unfolds, neighboring countries are closely monitoring the fallout.

Nations across the globe have imposed unprecedented sanctions on Moscow, but the economic and military repercussions of Russia's Ukrainian invasion are just part of the picture.

The European continent is concerned that a full-blown incursion could lead to a major migrant crisis — the type not seen since World War II — with serious humanitarian, political and societal costs both for Ukrainian refugees and the countries to which they flee.

Indeed, some central European nations are already making preparations.

Poland, which shares an approximately 530-kilometer land border with Ukraine, said last month that it is preparing for up to 1 million Ukrainian refugees, whom they plan to house in hostels, dormitories and sports facilities. Nearby Romania is anticipating migration in the "hundreds of thousands," while Slovakia and the Czech Republic put estimated inflows in the tens of thousands.

The nature of the evolving situation in Ukraine, however, means the scale of potential civilian displacement is as yet unknown.

"As far as Europe's concerned, it's potentially one of the biggest impacts of this crisis," Oksana Antonenko, director of global risk analysis at Control Risks, told CNBC Tuesday.

A full invasion could displace millions

Ukraine, home to roughly 44 million, saw internal displacement of around 1.5 million people following Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea. Others still moved to Russia.

Russia's operation earlier this week to capture the rebel-held Donetsk and Luhansk regions was seen as likely to provoke similar internal and eastward migration, though on differing scales. Indeed, many have already been transported to Russia.


But Thursday's further incursion into central and western Ukraine could have far wider implications, experts have warned.

The U.S. government estimates that an invasion could prompt one to five million Ukrainians to flee the country, and Ukraine's defense minister put the figure at three to five million. Charity Unicef on Friday also projected that up to 5 million Ukrainians could flee the country.

"If that is to happen, we're certainly talking about hundreds of thousands if not millions of refugees, and they will most likely be fleeing into Europe rather than Russia," Antonenko said.

"If you ended up with a Russian occupied Ukraine, then those would be longer term European refugees," added Rodger Baker, Stratfor's senior vice president for strategic analysis at Rane.

Poland, Hungary and Slovakia key recipients

In such a case, the lion's share of people may move overland to border countries: Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Moldova and Romania. Under EU policy, no visa is required for Ukrainians to enter the Schengen Area — a common travel area among EU countries, which includes all the aforementioned bar Moldova and Romania.

But western European countries such as Germany, France and Britain could quickly feel the moral pressure to share the burden of what the U.K.'s defense secretary said would be the worst migrant crisis "since the war."

Last week, the Pentagon said 3,000 U.S. troops had been deployed to Poland to help prepare for a potential influx of migrants after authorities there said it should be prepared for the "worst-case scenario."

"If there is a war in Ukraine, we have to be prepared for an influx of real refugees, people fleeing from the inferno, from death, from the atrocities of war," Poland's deputy interior minister, Maciej Wasik, told Polish television.

"As a government, we must be prepared for the worst-case scenario, and for some time the interior ministry has been taking steps to prepare us for the arrival of even a million people."

Already, Poland is home to a sizeable Ukrainian community. Though few have claimed refugee status, Poland has issued around 300,000 temporary residence visas to Ukrainians in recent years. Indeed, some estimate as many as 2 million Ukrainians have migrated to Poland since the annexation of Crimea.

Europe's preparedness still in doubt

While human rights watchdogs have welcomed the preparations, many have pointed to apparent double standards in central European countries' willingness to accept refugees.

During the 2015 European migrant crisis, which saw an influx of refugees primarily from Syria, Poland was reluctant to offer asylum. More recently, in 2021, Polish border guards violently pushed back a wave of primarily Iraqi Kurdistan migrants at the Belarusian border.

Meantime, the political implications of such mass migration are not without concern. The 2015 refugee crisis is widely thought to have bolstered the far-right, anti-immigration movement that swelled across Europe in the years that followed. A similar influx of migrants could pose similar challenges in an already precarious post-Covid environment.

But until governments know more as to the extent of a further invasion and the potential migration implications, their preparedness is likely to be limited.

"Even when it's a likelihood, governments are rarely fully prepared," said Baker. "They're currently focused on the short-term and prevention measures."

"Poland is highly sensitive to the situation," he said, adding the others are "not looking and hoping for the best."

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