Central Europe nudges Ukrainian refugees to return home

Central Europe nudges Ukrainian refugees to return home
Ukrainian refugees arriving in Poland in 2022. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews May 20, 2024

Central European countries that have been the biggest recipients of Ukrainian refugees are gently encouraging them to return, amid pressure from Kyiv for military-age men to come home and domestic discontent with the continuing costs of looking after them.

The Czech Republic is set to launch a pilot project aimed at facilitating the voluntary return of Ukrainian refugees, while neighbouring Poland plans to tighten benefit regulations for displaced individuals.

Czechia has the largest number of Ukrainian refugees per capita, while Poland has the largest number in aggregate after Germany.

Czechia has already curtailed the existing temporary asylum programme for Ukrainians fleeing Russian aggression. Under the programme, which is now in force until March 2025, emergency housing conditions are now stricter.

At the end of April there were 339,000 Ukrainians under the temporary asylum rules in Czechia and about 133,000 of these are working Ukrainians were one of the largest minorities in Czechia already prior to the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some 59% of Czechs believe their country has admitted more Ukrainians under the temporary protection scheme than it can absorb, according to a survey by the Centre for Public Opinion (CVVM), an affiliate of the Sociological institute of the Czech Academy of Sciences, in April.

Under the new pilot initiative, scheduled to operate from June to November, assistance will be to Ukrainians desiring to return home, primarily due to health or family-related reasons. This project aims to offer support such as purchasing tickets and, in severe cases, arranging ambulance services, according to the Ministry of Internal Affairs.

In the first tranche Czechia will arrange for bus tickets to 400 persons and another 30 in complicated health condition will receive individual travel and health assistance for their journey back.

Meanwhile, Poland is preparing to introduce a new system enabling authorities to verify the residency status of Ukrainian refugees and promptly suspend benefits for those relocating to other countries.

Poland has granted temporary protection status to some 950,000 Ukrainians, the second-largest number after Germany, according to Eurostat data. Most of them are women and children.

All told, there are around 2mn Ukrainians in Poland, as many had been arriving in the EU member states for years before the war.

Nevertheless, both Czechia and Poland have so far resisted Kyiv’s call to send military-age male refugees home. Ukraine has been struggling to recruit more soldiers as Russian forces advance, and is now looking to those who earlier fled the country.

Recently, Ukraine denied consular services to all male Ukrainian citizens aged 18-60 living abroad unless they updated their information in a special military register, so that Ukraine will know whether men of draft age who have left the country are hiding from the service. Expiring passports will only be replaced if they come home.

Warsaw believes such measures affecting Ukrainians as a group appear dubious from a legal standpoint.

Pushing tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people out of the country could also be problematic for the Polish economy, which is grappling with acute labour shortages.

"I cannot imagine the Polish labour market without Ukrainian citizens. I think this would be a very serious problem for us from the point of view of companies’ competitiveness,” Deputy Home Affairs Minister Maciej Duszczyk told the Polish parliament recently.

That said, some in the ruling coalition hinted they didn't like Ukrainians enjoying life in Poland while their country is being bombed into submission.

“I think many Poles are outraged when they see young Ukrainian men in hotels and cafes, and they hear how much effort we have to make to help Ukraine,” Prime Minister and Defence Minister Kosiniak-Kamysz told Polsat News.

According to a survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology (KMIS), only half of Ukrainian refugees currently residing in Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic are willing to return home if certain conditions are met, including security, stable employment in critical infrastructure, housing availability, and the conclusion of the war.