Diana Artomova had just made it into Poland when her phone lit up with a call. A woman was on the line, returning a call the 21-year-old Ukrainian had made a few hours before.
It was the early days of the war and Artomova had been trying to reach a friend living in Katowice, in southern Poland, who would help her settle in this new country. But she’d misdialed the number, and now she found herself talking to an unknown Polish woman. The stranger was unfazed. “Poland is with you,” she told Artomova in Russian. “Stay strong.”
The brief interaction mirrored the deluge of support Artomova and 4.6 million other refugees from Ukraine have received since Russia invaded this country on Feb. 24. Romania, Slovakia, Hungary and Moldova have collectively taken in almost two million refugees.
Airline, bus and train companies have offered free transportation to Ukrainians looking to resettle in neighboring countries. The European Union resurrected a two-decade-old directive to automatically allow refugees to work and access welfare within the 27-nation bloc for up to three years.
From New York state, Julia Hall, the deputy director for research at the European regional office of Amnesty International, has watched these developments in bewilderment. She’s had a hard time believing these are the same countries that have had no scruples in pushing back Middle Eastern and African migrants in recent years.
The leaders of Hungary and Poland have consistently described migrants hailing from Muslim-majority countries as a security threat. The Polish Parliament, in a bid to deter migrants from crossing over from Belarus, last year approved the construction of a $407 million high-tech border wall. In Slovakia, migrants held in detention centers are guarded by uniformed, truncheon-carrying policemen.
“It’s really hard to find a way to justify the treatment of those people against the treatment of Ukrainian nationals,” says Hall.
Many human rights activists and lawyers have similarly been scratching their heads, both amazed at the extraordinary display of solidarity and aggrieved that it would be so selective. Now, some say that the current refugee crisis presents an opportunity for Europe to hit the reset button on who it decides to let in. Others, however, argue that the EU’s response to the mass displacement of Ukrainians will only accelerate existing trends.
But all agree that the war in Ukraine could mark a turning point for Europe’s migrant policies.
It was 5 a.m. on Feb. 24 when Artomova’s mother woke her up. Russian tanks were rolling across the border. They had to leave Kyiv — now. Her father would drive her to the Polish border, which is about 400 miles west of Ukraine’s capital.
The young woman hurriedly donned a black sports jacket — a gift from her dad — stuffed her mom’s yellow-mustard scarf and yellow Ugg beanie hat in an old black rucksack and a maroon suitcase, and hopped in her father’s bronze Opel.
Traffic jams stretched out for miles and miles as thousands of Ukrainians similarly drove to safety. To pass the time, Artomova and her father made jokes about the Russian army’s dismal performances or listened to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s uplifting speeches on their smartphones.
As they got closer to the border, they picked up Polish radio frequencies. “We were trying to learn a new language,” says Artomova, who has long, jet-black hair and almond-shaped eyes. In Medyka, a border crossing between Ukraine and Poland, they found throngs of women pushing strollers, children and a few men standing in long lines in the bitter cold, waiting to be waved past a counter nestled in a low-slung building.
Her father dropped her off and prepared to drive back to Kyiv. Zelenskyy had ordered general mobilization and most men ages 18 to 60 were forbidden from leaving the country. “Take care of yourself,” they told one another.
It only took Artomova an hour to make it through the border. Once on the other side, it dawned on her that she now was on her own in a foreign country, and she started to cry.
Still, she marveled at how Poles were mobilizing to assist refugees like her.
Volunteers stood behind crates of fruit in blue-and-orange pop-up tents and handed bananas and oranges to Ukrainians. A man on the Ukrainian side had recommended that she avail herself of the free tea distributed there; there might not be any in Poland. But the man was wrong — hot cups were being passed around across the border, too.
Soon, a woman pointed Artomova to a bus headed for Przemyśl, the first leg in her long journey to Warsaw, Poland’s capital. Once there, she spent the night at a refugee center. Volunteers gave her a free SIM card, and she was able to check on her parents in Ukraine.
The next day, her friend, a student in Katowice, picked her up and drove back with her to that southern Polish city. Local authorities there were making student dorms available to newcomers, and university officials soon gave Artomova a laptop, store coupons and an envelope containing 1,000 złoty, the equivalent of a little over $230. She was especially grateful for the laptop as she was still working remotely for an information technology company.
The whole city was seemingly pitching in. At the main train station, volunteers in clown and rabbit costumes ambled about the main hall, high-fiving children with green stuffed dinosaurs and handing out squeezable applesauce pouches.
Seven universities joined efforts to throw a charity concert. The University of Silesia arranged for 1,600 Ukrainians to receive lodging in dorms on campus in addition to being offered medical care and free Polish courses, university officials say.
“Everyone is involved,” says Barbara Mikołajczyk, a professor at the faculty of law and administration at the University of Silesia who specializes in immigration law.
That such a profusion of refugees could so readily be absorbed into the fabric of an EU country has been somewhat mystifying to Mikołajczyk and other observers.
When more than one million refugees — mostly young men fleeing war-torn Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan — came knocking on Europe’s doors in 2015, they were met with staunch opposition and incendiary rhetoric that likened them to terrorists. “The immigrant bomb is coming,” read a headline in Il Giornale, a right-wing Italian newspaper.
Countries in the Balkans hastily built razor-wire fences along their borders. Law enforcement officers reportedly set attack dogs on migrants and beat them with batons. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice Party, said migrants would bring “parasites and protozoa.” His party won by a landslide in the parliamentary elections that year and has since been in power. Anti-immigration, far-right parties from France and Hungary to Germany similarly made electoral gains.
There were notable exceptions to Europe’s collective reluctance. Germany gave asylum to more than one million Syrians, many fleeing Russian airstrikes that leveled building after building in Syria. But public sentiment soured all the same. A median 50% of Europeans surveyed by Pew in 10 EU countries in 2016 said they believed that refugees would take jobs and welfare away from rightly entitled citizens.
While migratory pressure in Europe had largely subsided before the war in Ukraine, countries like Poland on occasion whipped up some of the repressive tactics they’d used in the past.
When Alexander Lukashenko’s Belarus let Middle Eastern refugees cross its border, ostensibly to orchestrate a humanitarian crisis at the doors of the EU, Poland restricted media access, doubled the number of troops at its border to about 6,000 and sent refugees back.
Migrants who talked to Amnesty International reported being detained in overcrowded rooms, submitted to strip searches and threatened with tasers.
Olaf Kleist, a researcher at the German Centre for Integration and Migration Research in Berlin, chalks up the disparate treatment of Ukrainian nationals and other migrants in part to racism and xenophobia. “Non-European and non-Christian refugees haven’t been accepted,” he says, but “white Ukrainian refugees are welcome.”
But there are other factors figuring prominently in the EU’s willingness to open its borders to Ukrainian refugees, experts say.
Unlike Syrians, Afghans or Iraqis, Ukrainians haven’t needed a visa to travel into the EU, says Nikolas Tan, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for Human Rights. This means that allowing them in may not represent as big a leap. Then there’s the strong sense of shared identity between Eastern European nations and Ukraine, which for decades lived under the yoke of the Soviet Union.
“Ukrainians are seen as victims of a common enemy rather than being individually persecuted,” Kleist says.
Also helping is that Ukrainians have long worked in the EU as economic migrants, says Catherine Wihtol de Wenden, a researcher on international migration at the French Center for International Research. After war broke out in eastern Ukraine in 2014 and millions of people left the country, Germany jumped on the opportunity to fill vacant jobs and relaxed labor laws to make it easier for employers to hire Ukrainian workers. Poland was the main destination country and, as of 2017, employed an estimated 900,000 Ukrainians.
Still, the EU’s decision to lift all restrictions on movement for Ukrainians within the bloc for up to three years represents a drastic move. “Time will tell whether the current approach to those displaced by the Ukraine conflict is a paradigm shift or an exception to normal policymaking,” says Tan.
To Amnesty International’s Hall, Europe will now have a hard time justifying pushing back other migrants under the pretense it doesn’t have the resources to handle new arrivals.
The European Commission announced last month it was planning on releasing 3.4 billion in euros to fund member states’ spending on education, health care and housing for Ukrainian refugees. “We definitely know that it’s possible for us to absorb people who really need refuge in Europe,” she says. “We see that happening right before our very eyes.”
In the eyes of Kleist, there’s a risk that the current response to the mass displacement of Ukrainians will usher in a new era where asylum isn’t considered a democratic right, but a political choice host countries are free to make or not.
“This is the return to Cold War politics when refugees from Communist countries were given asylum,” he says. Now, asylum could become “a tool in a new conflict between authoritarian and democratic countries, while border control for other refugees undermines the right to asylum and the rule of law.”
After spending a couple of weeks in Katowice, Artomova boarded an intercity train to Warsaw, free of charge. Through a friend, she was able to find a white-walled studio apartment on the second floor of an eight-story building, which she rents for the equivalent of $540 a month.
This is what a day in her new life looks like now: She wakes up at 9 a.m., catches a cab to work — buses can be capricious — and makes her way to her IT company’s Warsaw office, hastily opened as employees relocated to Poland. She’s been working six days a week and hasn’t had time to visit the Royal Castle or the Uprising Museum, which is dedicated to the Polish resistance to Nazis during World War II.
But she’s still made a few intriguing discoveries. Local food isn’t that different from what she’s used to at home: Like their western Ukrainian neighbors, Poles adore salceson, a terrine made from pork cuts.
Warsaw itself doesn’t feel that foreign either — she can hear Ukrainian and Russian spoken in the cobbled streets. When they address Artomova in Polish, waitresses at cafes fail to conceal a thick Ukrainian accent.
Some Ukrainians have started trickling back into Kyiv now that the Russian army has recentered its efforts to the east. But for now, Artomova plans on staying put in Warsaw. Her father is supporting the Territorial Defence Forces in the capital, and her mother is staying with relatives in northwestern Ukraine. This makes Artomova the only breadwinner. She doesn’t anticipate that IT jobs will be in Kyiv anytime soon. “Maybe it’s even better if I work here and stay here,” she says.