The EU’s response to the mass arrival of Ukrainians displaced by the war has been characterized as exceptional, mobilizing legal and financial measures absent in previous migration “crises.” We need to question, however, who actually provided this much lauded hospitality and where, and also the very discourse of hospitality that has dominated the reception of Ukrainian refugees.
The European Union’s activation of its Temporary Protection Directive just weeks after the start of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia was widely lauded as showing an exceptional response. The directive, which had never been activated in previous migration “crises” (including the 2015 “summer of migration”), provided Ukrainian refugees with the right to temporary residence as well as to housing, schooling, medical care, social welfare, and access to the labor market. Equally importantly, it allowed them movement between member states as well as pendular movement with Ukraine. EU institutions and member states also mobilized new funding mechanisms with great speed, including Cohesion Policy funds (meant for post-pandemic recovery, now reallocated to fund refugee housing, education, and healthcare) and the Home Affairs Fund, drawing money from member states and private donors to create adequate reception facilities.
While such measures were unprecedented, they tell only a small part of the story. The Temporary Protection Directive has been applied in highly unequal fashion across member states (and even within them), with access to the right to healthcare or welfare payments entailing very different things in different countries. What is more, beyond the celebratory pronouncements of an exceptional and coordinated response, the actual reception of the displaced relied for the most part not on state authorities (and even less so on EU or international institutions) but rather on networks of volunteers and private citizens.
The Actual Geographies of Reception
Poland is a case in point. In the first month of the war, the population of Warsaw increased by 17 percent as over half a million of the over 2.5 million refugees had either passed through or remained in the city. Writing in The Economist in April 2022, Warsaw Mayor Rafał Trzaskowski described how “the city mobilized in extraordinary fashion.” The situation was paralleled in other large Polish cities such as Kraków and Wrocław. But, as Trzaskowski made clear, the response was almost entirely “a bottom-up process driven mostly by a dense network of co-operation between volunteers, charities and local governments.”
Elizabeth Cullen-Dunn and Iwona Kaliszewska have described the Polish response as a form of “distributed humanitarianism” that permitted a much faster and scalable response than aid agencies or the national state could deliver. They write that “volunteer aid chains could organize themselves and move goods much more quickly than the institutionalized aid agencies, with their formalized needs assessments, procurement procedures, and needs for accountability. This allowed them to meet changing needs more quickly. But even more importantly, the volunteer aid chains were scalable: when 8.5 million refugees were crossing the Polish border, millions of volunteer aid chains were formed, but as the number of refugees dwindled, the number of aid chains dropped.”
Poland was not unique in this; in countries such as Austria, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom, most of the aid that Ukrainians were able to access in the first months of the war came from municipal governments and informal volunteer efforts rather than international or state agencies.
In many ways, such re-scaling of responsibility to urban actors for the reception of refugees was already evident in the 2015 “hospitality crisis” as EU member states revealed themselves unable or simply unwilling to provide adequate reception for those requiring protection. Whether as part of more formal city-to-city networks (such as Solidarity Cities or the Pact of Free Cities), of networked solidarity initiatives (such as the Refugees Welcome network), or of more activist forms of migrant self-organization (such as the Hotel Plaza initiative in Athens), the reception of refugees had increasingly become devolved to the local level before 2022.
Homes and Hosts
What is new about the EU response to Ukrainian refugees, however, is the further scaling down of the responsibility for refugee reception not just to urban authorities and organizations but to private citizens—and the institutionalization of such forms of private reception. Across the EU, the great majority of Ukrainian refugees have been hosted in private homes (and often by Ukrainian communities already present in cities such as Warsaw).
In the United Kingdom, the ‘Homes for Ukraine’ scheme that matches Ukrainian nationals with local hosts has provided accommodation for over 75,000. In France, the Ministry of the Interior launched the ‘Pour l’Ukraine’ platform to coordinate the efforts of local municipalities and private citizens to provide housing. In the Netherlands, the Ministry of Justice and Security turned directly to Dutch NGOs to create the ‘RefugeeHomeNL’ platform, relying on the support of the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, the Netherlands Council for Refugees, and a new organization called ‘Takecarebnb.’
While such schemes may have allowed for a rapid response at the start of the war, they are encountering a variety of challenges as time goes on. A study published in February 2023 by the Warsaw-based Centre of Migration Research (CMR) noted that over half of Ukrainian refugees in Poland did not have stable accommodation (less than 10 percent were housed in formal refugee centers). A similar study by the NGO Ukrainian Action in Ireland in March 2023 noted that housing precarity was the biggest challenge for refugees.
In the United Kingdom, a quarter of the hosts for the Homes for Ukraine scheme did not want to continue the arrangement beyond six months. This had less to do with their changing attitudes and more with their feeling of being completely abandoned by the state. One host told the BBC: “What the government are asking from you is to provide a full social security system. As soon as there’s any problem or confusion or challenge, there was nowhere to turn.” Studies by the CMR in Poland reveal a similar dynamic: while the willingness of Poles to provide private assistance did not undergo a significant change over the past year, what did change was their trust in the state’s ability to “provide systemic solutions.”
The Precarity of Hospitality
While we should recognize the response of countless Europeans in “giving home” to Ukrainians fleeing the war, we also need to pay heed to the perils of privatized hospitality. First, such hospitality is always precarious, relying on the charity of hosts rather than on legally guaranteed rights to protection. Second, it is inevitably unequal, with hosts deciding who they are willing to be hospitable to and for how long. Scholars have written extensively about the hierarchies of vulnerability that “sort” refugees’ right to protection. As protection is further re-scaled to private homes, such hierarchies of vulnerability are also entangled with hierarchies of “hostability,” with hosts deciding not just whom to make safe but also who is safe for them. Finally, since hospitality is necessarily an unequal relation, guests are not seen as legitimate holders of rights but burdened with expectations of recognition and gratitude (as reports of abuse and exploitation of the mostly female Ukrainian guests have highlighted).
As David Featherstone has argued, transversal solidarities extended by private citizens are always “without guarantees.” In the EU, such guarantees must be provided by the member states, which cannot continue to rely upon the charity of private actors to ensure the full range of legally binding rights to those displaced by the Ukraine war.
Luiza Bialasiewicz is professor of European Governance at the University of Amsterdam and the academic director of the Amsterdam Centre for European Studies.