The EU acted quickly in response to the millions of people fleeing the war in Ukraine, introducing rules that give uprooted people the opportunity to stay, work and find school for their children, in stark contrast to the much less hospitable approach of the trade union in previous refugee crises.

Despite the pressure these refugees are now putting on member states’ public services, many economists argue that the tax burden should be manageable – and that Ukrainians will be well positioned to find work in tight labor markets where their skills are in high demand.

The sheer size and speed of the exodus since the invasion began on February 24 makes this a formidable challenge. “This is bigger than any other humanitarian crisis since World War II,” said Jean-Christophe Dumont, head of migration at the OECD, noting that between 2014 and 2017, Poland had already received as many refugees as arrived in the EU, while Hungary had five times the number of migrants it usually received in a year.

But the bloc’s response offers hope that it has learned the lessons from the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis and can prevent a public response by taking a more collaborative approach, with the initial wave of community aid backed by private sector assistance. and more formal state aid.

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, said the bloc would “mobilize billions of euros” to build shelters, mobile hospitals and schools and finance jobs and childcare.

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The biggest change from previous crises is the EU’s decision to activate the “Temporary Protection Mechanism”, giving the millions who have fled Ukraine since the start of the conflict the right to live and work in any Member State, including access to health care, housing and education.

More than 3.2 million people have left Ukraine since the Russian invasion began — more than the number who arrived in Europe from Syria in a few weeks in a matter of weeks in 2015-2016. The EU’s failure to share responsibility for refugees since that crisis has left thousands of people trapped at borders behind barbed wire or huddled in camps in the countries least equipped to cope.

“It’s very different from before,” said Hanne Beirens, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe, a Brussels-based think tank, which argues that the protection mechanism will reduce the cost of hosting refugees by allowing them to move where they have family. or community ties, or seeing the best job prospects.

While Poland was already home to an estimated 1 million to 2 million Ukrainians — most of whom arrived since Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the support of separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014 — there are also large communities in Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany and Spain.

Bar chart of estimated number of Ukrainian inhabitants (000s), 2020 shows several European countries have large Ukrainian diaspora

Goldman Sachs estimated that if the EU countries took in 4 million Ukrainians in the coming year, and they chose to settle in a pattern similar to existing communities with financial support comparable to that of previous refugee crises, the fiscal cost would be reduced.” very manageable” would be 0.1-0.2 percent of gross domestic product in the EU’s four largest economies.

The OECD’s Dumont was more cautious, underscoring the extreme uncertainty about how many people would leave Ukraine, which countries they would move to, how long they would stay and the different levels of financial and practical support from governments.

Large numbers would likely remain in Poland given the size of the existing Ukrainian community, he said, adding: “Unless the situation changes very quickly, we should be prepared to welcome these people for some time.”

In the short term, frontline countries are struggling to cope. Moldova, which is not an EU member, appealed to the UN for help moving refugees to Romania and beyond, and the mayor of Warsaw called for more systematic support from the west to avoid overloading public services.

With estimates of the likely exodus exceeding the UN’s initial estimate of 4 million, the OECD underlined the need for a collective effort and urged the EU to share the financial burden with the worst-hit countries.

Beirens said that, unlike 2015, when the European Commission struggled to allocate funding for a response to the Syrian crisis, it can now draw on a more readily available pot in its Asylum, Migration and Integration Fund.

Rafal Benecki, a Warsaw-based economist for ING, claimed the costs of meeting the immediate needs of refugees were “controllable locally”, with Polish households and local authorities leading the way and state funding would follow. He estimated that the expenditures to support a 2.5 million refugee population for six months to a year would total 20-40 billion zlotys ($4.7 billion-9.4 billion), which is equivalent to 0. 7-1.4 percent of GDP.

European authorities have acted quickly to address practical problems, by providing access to public transport and communication networks, and looking for ways to convert hryvnia savings into euros.

But it should also be a priority, Beirens said, to help refugees find work and become self-sufficient — by funding language training and childcare and recognizing professional qualifications.

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Nicolas Schmit, the EU’s employment commissioner, said last week that Brussels would work with public employment services to assess where there were gaps that could help refugees fill. “These people really want to work,” he said, “so we need to facilitate their integration.”

With labor shortages across the eurozone and unemployment rates well below the EU average in Poland and Hungary, employers are likely to be welcomed more quickly than refugees have received in the past.

ING’s Benecki said the first wave of Ukrainian migration after 2014 had already added about one percentage point to Poland’s annual GDP. The newcomers — if they choose to stay — would help address chronic shortages in both skilled sectors, such as education and IT services, and lower-skilled areas.

“We don’t know how long the conflict will last,” he said. “In the longer term, some people will probably stay. I hope they can also benefit and contribute to the economic prosperity of this country.”

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