Faculty discussion on Ukraine: Migration and Society

May 2022

The Faculty of Social Studies at Masaryk University held the second round of discussions around the Russian invasion of Ukraine, focusing on issues of Migration and Society. Csaba Szaló, Bernadette Nadya Jaworsky, and Olga Zhmurko from the Department of Sociology talked with the students about the challenges Ukrainian refugees face internationally, the implications of the new wave of migration, and the changing perspective on refugees after the Russian Invasion.

Olga Zhmurko, who recently joined Masaryk University from Ukraine, touched on the issues of internal immigration and internally displaced persons, noting that the first wave of IDPs spread within the borders of Ukraine back in 2014 when Russia attacked Ukraine. The state adopted policies to ensure the integration of IDPs into their new spaces. While the effectiveness of these measures is debatable, at the time, Ukraine was able to cope with the number of IDPs that hit 1.5 million Ukrainian. This time around, the number of people who had to leave their homes due to the war is more than 11 million, with 7 million remaining within Ukraine and 4 million abroad, a number that will require much more resources and effort to cope with it.

Zhmurko shared the results of the recent study conducted among 600 refugees who left Ukraine, which showed that most refugees are women under 40, a lot of them children. Apart from that, many of the refugees were forced to leave family members behind with the hopes of returning to their homes soon. Access to education and living conditions also remain pressing issues for IDPs within Ukraine

Szalo focused on the importance of transnational ties, bringing up the examples of Poland and the Czech Republic, both of which have built solid and lasting linkages with Ukraine and the Ukrainian people. Szalo notes that the Polish state was the first to recognize the importance of these kinds of networks and purposefully worked to strengthen them. Similarly, the Czech Republic also shares strong social ties with Ukraine. Szalo underlined that despite the prejudice that Ukrainians in the Czech Republic mostly work for lower-income jobs, among the 80,000 new working visas issued, only ⅕ were for the lower-paying jobs.

Hungary was brought up as another example of a transnational connection because of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, which meant that one of the first refugees to come to Hungary from Ukraine were the people who had ethnic ties to the country, making the ties between the two semi-restricted to the Carpathian region.

The possible points of contention were also discussed by Szalo, who noted that the housing might cause tension between the refugees and the lower-income locals. At the same time, education may become the point of tension among refugees and middle and upper-class locals.

Around 25,000 Ukrainian kids who are at the age of starting their secondary education may find it difficult to enter the Czech education system, which is selective and utilizes complicated entrance exams to accept the kids into the Gymnasium, noted Szalo. Meanwhile, the parents of Czech children working hard to put their kids through high quality gymnasiums may find the influx of refugees increases competition and is less than favorable for local school-age kids. Despite that, speakers agreed on the importance of promoting the integration of refugees, specifically the kids. Jaworsky also noted that the teachers should play a crucial role in ensuring the effective inclusion of the kids into local communities.

Apart from the practical issues of integration and aid, the topic of European identity was also brought up. As noted by Szalo, while there is no fixed definition of European identity, what could be said with confidence in the past was that Europe was against fascism, racism, and war. Although the ongoing crisis has brought into question the essential part of the European Identity, pacifism as staying silent and opposing confrontation is no longer an option. Szalo noted that oddly enough, in these circumstances, Victor Orban, the Hungarian PM emerged at the forefront of pacifism, and consequently inaction. While there is no consensus on the current European identity, the strong alternative is the national conservative right, the Fortress Europe. The crisis, among other things, has highlighted the fragility of EU identity- says Szalo.

Nadya Jaworsky who works extensively on the topic of perceptions of foreigners in the Czech Republic shared that when talking with Czech people, she and her team were able to single out three categories used to refer to people from other countries who come to reside in the Czech Republic: Foreigner, refugee, and migrant. Jaworsky noted that within these three groups is a hierarchy of tolerance and the order largely depends on variables like country of origin and race.

At the top of the hierarchy are “foreigners” or expats - the qualified workers. Then come the “refugees,” and the closer they are culturally and geographically to the Czech Republic, the better they fare. Migrants are at the bottom of the hierarchy and refer to a person who is a little bit suspect, maybe is here illegally, maybe they are here only for social benefits or are unfamiliar. Jaworsky notes that one of the factors contributing to the uneasiness is that the Czech Republic is an ethnically homogenous state. Jaworsky notes that some saw Ukrainians as foreigners or as migrants, but it’s not easy to label them as pro-immigrant or against immigrants.

The speakers highlighted a lot of outpouring of support for Ukrainian refugees, with cultural and geographical closeness making a positive impact on their attitudes. Zhmurko said that she and her colleagues have found it easy to figure out and handle the necessary paperwork and to start living independently in the Czech Republic after leaving Ukraine. Although the Czech Republic seems to have the highest levels of reluctance towards accepting the refugees, with most EU countries supporting an unlimited number of Ukrainian refugees, 66% of Czechs said that only a limited number should be admitted.

Jaworsky says that having more refugees around will likely increase the positive attitudes and decrease hesitancy towards accepting refugees in the future.

The discussion was held in our faculty atrium and was open to both students and the general population. It is available to watch on the faculty youtube channel.


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