Posted on November 6, 2022

A New Refugee Crisis Stirs Uncomfortable Issues for Europe

Erika Solomon and Monika Pronczuk, New York Times, November 3, 2022

In Brussels, asylum seekers are forced to shelter in cardboard boxes on the street. Across southern Germany, small-town mayors are opening gyms and auditoriums to house ever more refugees. And in the Netherlands, where a 3-month-old baby died this year, the government is being sued for inhumane camp conditions.

With Russia waging war on its doorstep, Europe has taken in 4.4 million Ukrainians this year, in addition to more than 365,000 first-time asylum applicants, many fleeing threats in Syria and Afghanistan.

That is more even than in 2015, which stood out as the landmark period of migration in contemporary European history, when 1.2 million refugees fleeing wars in the Middle East arrived, the bulk of them in Germany. The country’s former chancellor, Angela Merkel, encouraged their welcome with her now-famous line: “We can do it.”

But how Europe will do it again this time is raising nettlesome questions about the distribution of refugees — and their uneven treatment — while heightening concerns over the anticipated arrival of still more Ukrainians as temperatures drop and Russia intensifies its strikes on civilian infrastructure.


As it builds and lingers, Europe’s humanitarian crisis holds the increasing risk of political fallout as a host of challenges pile up.

Russia’s war in Ukraine presents a security threat of its own. On top of that, as Russia halts gas flows, and E.U. nations impose sanctions on Moscow, an energy crisis has sent inflation soaring, sowing discontent over the cost of living, as well as the war. Economic discontent and wariness of migration have already spurred a fresh surge in far-right and populist forces.


The current crisis is one created by war in Europe, analysts say — not by asylum seekers from conflict-stricken countries like Afghanistan and Syria taking smugglers’ route on foot toward Europe. And yet they are the ones feeling the brunt of it.

Because Europe has granted Ukrainians automatic residency and visas, Ukrainians are at the front of the line for housing and refugee services. In some places, conditions are at a breaking point, with asylum seekers crammed into overcrowded reception centers.

A Dutch court recently ordered the government to improve asylum centers, after hundreds of people were forced to sleep outside this summer with little or no access to water or health care. The circumstances under which the 3-month-old girl died are still being investigated.

On Wednesday, the European Court of Human Rights ordered the Belgian government to provide housing for a Guinean who had been living on the street since July, when he applied for asylum.

Brussels, the Belgian capital and home to the headquarters of the European Union, has already used all 31,000 of its housing spaces, leaving 3,500 asylum seekers homeless.


The disparities have left activists like David Schmidtke, spokesman of the Saxony Refugee Council in Dresden, denouncing what they call a two-tier system that disadvantages and discriminates against asylum seekers from outside Ukraine.

“This is institutional racism,” he said. “There are two classes of refugees.”

In Germany and across the rest of the European Union, officials say the sudden scale of the Ukrainian arrivals has left the bloc with little choice but to offer automatic recognition and, therefore, direct access to services for which other asylum seekers often wait months and years.


Germany, which prided itself on taking in nearly one million Syrian refugees, is feeling overwhelmed by the arrival of a similar number of Ukrainians and some 80,000 other asylum seekers. Some towns warn that they are seeing numbers they never witnessed, even in 2015.


Some German leaders worry that the more the refugee crisis, along with economic woes, is felt in daily life, the more it will feed anti-migration tensions long exploited by the far right. Even the Ukrainians, once welcomed, now stir some resentment.


While Ukrainians are far and away the majority of new refugees, some politicians have blamed the strains on the system on asylum seekers from Syria, Afghanistan and other places outside Europe.

In Austria, some 71,000 people from outside Ukraine have applied for asylum this year, edging close to 2015 levels. Though the numbers of Ukrainians are roughly as much, if not more, it is the others sparking outrage in recent weeks.


Even as conditions worsen for many, there is no sign that the migration will slow.

Many recently arrived asylum seekers interviewed in Germany expected more to come — particularly Syrians who once found refuge in Turkey and now say they are facing increasing hostility there, including death threats and assault.