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From the Field

The Reception Chain for Exiled Ukrainians: From Ukraine to Poland and France

In contrast to other recent waves of refugees, Ukrainian exiles have been welcomed quickly and massively within the European Union (EU). Based on surveys in Poland and France, Thomas Lacroix pieces together the links in this unprecedented “reception chain,” and raises the question of its sustainability and replicability in European migration policies.

The system for the reception of exiles at the European Union’s borders is built on a police and prison framework (Bernardie Tahir and Schmoll 2018; Andersson 2014). It is criss-crossed by isolated holding centers, where people waiting for their fate to be decided live for months or even years. However, none of this applies to Ukrainians who have fled the conflict raging in their country since the end of February 2022. Thanks to their temporary protection status, they benefit from a completely different administrative procedure. This status was created by a European directive at the end of the war with Yugoslavia in 2001. In addition to the rights granted to statutory refugees, it gives access to an immediate right to work, a financial allowance, education services and, above all, freedom of movement within the Schengen Area. This difference in status, coupled with an unprecedented outpouring of solidarity, has radically transformed the context of reception. This article highlights two major shifts in the way Ukrainian exiles are managed, compared with non-European populations: first, the organization of movement (as opposed to the desire to hold people back), and secondly, the institutionalization of reception (as opposed to its criminalization). A field study in Ukraine and Poland examines the first shift, while a focus on the French context illustrates the second. In France, we have witnessed the rise of new players in the field of reception, not only from civil society, but also from institutions (such as city authorities and universities). In this way, from the point of departure to the point of settlement in a European or American country, the various actors and reception centers form a chain that channels and supports exiles in their trajectory.

From Ukraine to Poland: paths of exile

Lviv, the main reception city in western Ukraine, is a focal point for people fleeing war zones. Between February and May 2022, the authorities estimate that around 500,000 people passed through the city, and between 200,000 and 300,000 were residing there at the time of our mission. [1] The stadium inaugurated for the European Cup is the main reception center (Figure 1). The city is home to several other smaller centers, opened spontaneously by religious organizations or private individuals, such as the one on the floor of a Tesla dealership run by a French-Ukrainian couple (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Arena stadium, Lviv, Ukraine, May 8, 2022

Photo: Thomas Lacroix.

Figure 2. Emergency reception center, Lviv, Ukraine, May 8, 2022

Photo: Thomas Lacroix.

The nearest Polish border post, Medyka, is a two-hour drive from Lviv. On the Polish side, a chain of humanitarian organizations transports aid to Ukraine and refugees to a variety of destinations. A QR code affixed to the gates of the border post informs refugees how to obtain a Temporary Protected Status document and the associated rights (Figure 3). At the roadside, an illuminated sign indicates buses departing for EU cities (Figure 4).

Figure 3. Medyka border post, Poland, May 7, 2022

Photo: Thomas Lacroix.

Figure 4

Photo: Thomas Lacroix.

Those transiting via the nearest station have access to a map inviting them to seek refuge in Poland’s secondary towns (Figure 5). The major cities (Warsaw, Kraków, Gdańsk, Lublin, etc.) are saturated. In Warsaw, the two main reception centers, PTAK and Modlińska, are located on the outskirts of the city. People can find refuge there for a few hours or a few days, but never longer. Counters run by NGOs direct them to more permanent accommodation, usually with local people. These hostels take in most of the 300,000 refugees living in the city. Those wishing to go abroad can obtain the support of NGOs who will liaise with the relevant immigration services and local associations. In the Modlińska center (figure 6), they can find a Spanish, Swedish and English counter, as well as an annex of the Canadian embassy for expressing their request.

Figure 5. “Don’t be afraid to go to smaller towns”, Przemyśl rail station, Poland, May 9, 2022

Photo: Thomas Lacroix.

Figure 6. Modlińska humanitarian center, Warsaw, Poland, May 10, 2022

Photo : T. Lacroix.

Managing the movement and accommodation of refugees is almost entirely the responsibility of civil society and its volunteers. There are no refugee camps in Poland. The Polish government refuses any EU-wide relocation plan: its handling of refugees has led to the suspension of EU sanctions for its breaches of human rights and the rule of law. The government prefers to give an allowance to hosters, even if this financial aid is only valid for four months. This allowance has been renewed and extended to July 2022. In Polish schools, the maximum number of pupils per class has been raised to cope with the influx of Ukrainian children. However, inflation and rising energy costs are increasing the burden of accommodation on individuals. At the same time, a severe housing shortage has led to an explosion in property prices across the country. Even though 500,000 Ukrainians have already returned to the country, social tensions are expected to mount as the solidarity housing system comes to an end. Thanks to its network of reception centers, coupled with a transport and accommodation system, Poland acts as a crossroads for the redistribution of flows between Ukraine and the EU. We will now look at how this reception is organized in France.

New actors in the field of reception in France

In France, 101,000 Ukrainians have been granted temporary protection. [2] The vast majority of these refugees are women, often with one or more children (men of military age are not allowed to leave Ukraine). There are no national reception and accommodation facilities to cope with this type of situation. For the past two decades, the public authorities have been delegating large parts of the accommodation and follow-up services to local players, both public (municipalities and prefectures) and associative. While delegation is not a new phenomenon, there has been a profound renewal in the landscape of non-state actors, with the emergence of new figures and practices in the field of reception. Three categories of players are particularly concerned: municipalities, associations and universities.

Lille in northern France, twinned with Kharkiv, has opened up 250 accommodation places and has identified a further 800 in private homes. The eastern city of Metz took in a convoy of 250 Ukrainians on March 8. Initiatives are springing up all over France: in Dijon, Lyon and Nancy, including in rural areas. Municipalities and prefectures are becoming the relay points of a mobilization that national public authorities are seeking to rely on. Over the years, French towns and cities have developed considerable expertise in this field. The Association Nationale des Villes et Territoires Accueillants (National Association of Welcoming Cities and Territories; Anvita) [3] was created in 2018 by Damien Carême, former mayor of Grande-Synthe (near Dunkirk), to develop a model of unconditional welcome for migrants. In 2019, territorial contracts for the reception and integration of refugees (CTAIR) were set up to ensure better coordination between the actions of the French state, prefectures and signatory cities. [4] When the Ukrainian crisis broke out, the association was quickly approached by the Délégation Interministérielle à l’Accueil et à l’Intégration des Réfugiés (Interministerial Delegation for the Reception and Integration of Refugees; DIAIR) to inventory available accommodation capacity. Anvita was approached, but without any corresponding financial contribution. The government’s aim is to expand its reception capacity at lower cost, while the municipalities focus on their residents.

So, to a large extent, it is the goodwill of the public and the mobilization of associations that are responsible for this welcome. Civil society remains a fundamental cog in the system. Associations provide the personal and human dimension needed to welcome people who are sometimes traumatized by their experience. Among the latter, Ukrainian diaspora organizations are very dynamic, but play a lesser role than in countries where the diaspora is larger (Poland, Germany, Spain or Italy). Long stigmatized and even condemned by the authorities, home-stay accommodation is now becoming the norm (Singa association, Jesuit Relief Service’s Welcome program). The Ukrainian crisis has also seen the involvement of philanthropists. Entrepreneurs and other notables (such as Olivier Legrain, head of the Riace fund) are contributing financial and material resources to reception operations. Corporate foundations, such as the EDF Foundation, also finance hospitality projects.

The third category of players that has grown in importance in recent years is universities. The PAUSE program, created in 2017, brings artists and scientists in exile into a university setting. Over the past five years, the program has supported the reception of 300 people. But at the time of the war in Ukraine, its managers received 135 applications in March 2022 alone, a figure never reached before. The program has set up an emergency fund of 500,000 euros to enable Ukrainian researchers to be hosted for an initial period of three months, without the need for co-financing.

Towards a true European reception model?

As we have seen, the Ukrainian crisis has given rise to an unprecedented reception chain in France and Poland. This chain is made up of a system of circulation and a number of players involved in the various stages of the reception process, from flight to temporary accommodation or settlement. This system has enabled a certain fluidity in the care of exiles. The establishment of this chain was made possible by the administrative status of these exiles—temporary protection—but also by the legitimacy that "white" refugees (Cantat 2022) and victims of the Russian enemy can have in the eyes of the EU population.

Will this momentum fade, or will it have a lasting impact on the way refugees are received in Europe, including by non-European populations? The current situation offers an unprecedented platform for all these local players in the domain of refugee reception. They are all calling for an unconditional welcome for asylum seekers, with no discrimination based on origin. But there is a risk of reception fatigue, accelerated by the economic context and high inflation. Against a backdrop of growing tension, the question is: how long will Ukrainians remain “white?” Nevertheless, the ability to circulate within the Schengen Area gives Ukrainian refugees a capacity for adaptation that other asylum seekers or statutory refugees do not possess. Such a propensity for mobility had already been observed during the 2008–09 economic crisis. Today, Ukrainians are showing a similar propensity to respond to an unstable situation. A large number of families took advantage of the summer vacation period to return to Ukraine, before coming back in September. On average, in August, there were 27,000 daily border crossings to Poland and 26,000 to Ukraine. [5] The situation therefore remains extremely fluid. For only a fraction of them, the return was definitive. Other strategies combining mobility and employment can be observed: telecommuting to keep a job in Ukraine while living in the EU, or regular return trips to keep a foothold in both countries. These different options foreshadow a long-term move to the EU.


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To cite this article:

Thomas Lacroix & translated by Oliver Waine, “The Reception Chain for Exiled Ukrainians: From Ukraine to Poland and France”, Metropolitics, 16 June 2023. URL :

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