Eastern Europe welcomes Ukrainian refugees as labor

Eastern European countries are taking in the millions of Ukrainians fleeing the Russian invasion as a potential labor force, but analysts warn it will be difficult to absorb them all.

At least 2.5 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations, which calls it Europe’s fastest-growing refugee crisis since World War II.

More than half are now in Poland, but tens of thousands of people are also staying in Moldova and Bulgaria, whose populations are experiencing the fastest decline.

“Those arriving now on EU territory are well qualified and meet the demand for labour,” said Sieglinde Rosenberger of the University of Vienna, while warning that the welcoming attitude could change.

Other experts have asked how Eastern European countries, which have a lower GDP than their Western counterparts, can handle a massive influx.

Aware of the burden, some countries have called for more assistance.

“Educated, highly qualified”

In a letter to the government, the association of Bulgarian employers’ organizations said it could employ up to 200,000 Ukrainians.

They said those who were of Bulgarian origin and able to speak the language would be especially welcome.

Meanwhile, representatives from the IT, textile, construction and tourism sectors also said they wanted to hire tens of thousands of people.

Bulgaria’s population has grown from nearly 9 million at the fall of communism to 6.5 million today, partly due to emigration.

The welcome comes from the highest levels.

Bulgarian Prime Minister Kiril Petkov described the Ukrainian refugees as “intelligent, educated…highly skilled”.

“They are Europeans, so we and all other countries are ready to accept them,” he said.

About 20,000 Ukrainians are in Bulgaria, the EU’s poorest member, although the number is expected to rise if Russia seizes Odessa on the Black Sea.

Hungary, which touts its restrictive migration policy but also struggles with a labor shortage, has also taken in Ukrainians.

“We are able to tell the difference: who is a migrant, they come from the south… and who is a refugee,” said nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Refugees can get all the help,” he said last week.

Whether the Ukrainians will stay is another question, as many of them are moving elsewhere in Europe where they may have relatives or better prospects.

Integration issues

But countries where large numbers of refugees end up staying, such as Poland, could be overburdened as many are children and elderly, therefore unable to work.

“How will these large numbers be integrated across Europe? That’s going to be a problem,” Brad Blitz of University College London told AFP.

The “breaking point” was yet to come, he added.

Moldova, wedged between Ukraine and Romania with a population of 2.6 million, has appealed for urgent help for around 100,000 refugees.

“We will need help to deal with this influx, and we need it quickly,” said Moldovan Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita, visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last weekend.

Gerald Knaus of the European Stability Initiative think tank said the EU should prepare now to move hundreds of thousands of people within the bloc.

“It’s not going to work with hard quotas. It’s going to rely on bottom-up political support and political leaders saying, ‘We’re moving on,'” he told AFP.

He said the crisis could, however, turn “into one of the great moments in which Europeans come together around a humanitarian cause”.

Rosenberger, of the University of Vienna, said governments that sought to restrict migration had now quickly changed their stance in the face of public sympathy for Ukraine.

But that welcome might not last forever as “in a few months poorer, less skilled people are expected to come,” she said.