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Refugee reception in the shadow of Russia’s war in Ukraine – perspectives from Scandinavia and the UK

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 8 April 2022

A woman holds her hand to her face and looks worried, standing outdoors on an urban street

Image: hbrh / Adobe Stock

Drawing on their ongoing research, Mette Louise Berg, Line Grüner, Anders Neergaard, Andrea Verdasco, and Silke Zschomler discuss refugee reception policies in Denmark, Sweden, and the UK, and the obstacles involved in refugee social inclusion and integration in local communities. This post first appeared on the UCL Europe Blog


Since Russia’s attack on Ukraine, which began 24 February, more than 4 million people have fled the country, and 6.5 million have been internally displaced. Ukrainians have been met with public and political support and sympathy in neighbouring countries. At the policy level, the EU has granted those fleeing the war temporary protection for at least one year, extendable up to three years. This is a remarkable policy U-turn, including from governments that are otherwise hostile to refugees. As recently as January 2022, Iraqis seeking to enter Poland, Latvia and Lithuania were met with soldiers and push-backs. Push-backs are a violation of the European Convention on Human Rights; both the the EU and UNHCR have expressed concern at the practice.

Denmark has recently shifted its refugee policy focus from integration to repatriation and the requirements for protection have becomes so strict that most people fleeing from Ukraine would not meet asylum criteria. As a consequence, a special ‘Ukrainian law’ was passed in parliament to provide Ukrainians the right to residency and access to the labour market for a two-year period. This has led to public discussions about discrimination and whether some refugees are more deserving of protection and solidarity than others.

Sweden pursued a comparatively generous refugee policy towards Syrians, but later introduced restrictive legislation. Ukrainians fleeing the war will be treated in accordance with the EU directive on Temporary Protection, which allows for swift processing without individual vetting. However, while children can access schooling and health care, adults granted temporary protection will not have access to full health services. Furthermore, in order to receive financial support for housing and daily living costs those given temporary protection must either live in housing provided by the Board of Migration or in areas in Sweden that are not deemed as socio-economically vulnerable. Yet, it can be difficult to find housing in such areas, especially for recent arrivals with limited financial resources.

In the UK, the government has launched a limited scheme for family members of Ukrainians already living in the UK, and Ukrainians who have named host families or sponsor organisations in the UK. The scheme requires Ukrainians to obtain a UK visa before arrival in the country; it includes residence for up to three years. The scheme falls short of granting refugee status. Critics have noted the UK government’s slow, complex and bureaucratic response, and the human cost of its rigid visa bureaucracy. The scheme has been introduced as a new Nationality and Borders Bill is going through its final stages in Parliament, which is set to have far-reaching negative consequences for people seeking asylum, and about which the UNHCR has raised serious concerns.

In the coming weeks and months, as priorities shift from emergency humanitarian aid to a focus on inclusion and integration, a major challenge will be to ensure that public goodwill does not run out and that the policy-based intentions to support and include Ukrainians and provide access to employment are translated into reality.

The temporal dimension

Research shows that a central obstacle in refugee inclusion is precariousness and the temporal horizon. Temporary statuses are associated with poor socio-economic outcomes linked to education, labour market participation, and health status, including for children of refugees. People are able to build new lives if they have security of status. For example, evidence from Switzerland suggests that an additional year of waiting time reduces the subsequent employment rate of refugees by 4 to 5 percentage points; research on Ukrainian labour migrants in the Czech Republic has shown that those with permanent residence permits were twice as likely to have skilled jobs compared to those with temporary residence permits, and were half as likely to end up on the bottom rungs of the labour market.

Language acquisition and tuition

Language plays a fundamental part in settlement and the processes of inclusion and integration. An accessible and comprehensive system of language education for migrants, refugees, and those seeking asylum is therefore of prime importance.

A rights-based approach shifts the focus away from emphasising the obligation to learn (which can easily turn into the scapegoating of those who are deemed ‘unwilling’ to do so) towards creating suitable pathways to learn for all. Language tuition should be designed to take into account the different language needs of learners including, for example, negotiating everyday life, socialising, continuing education, accessing higher education, finding work, and participating in civil society and political life.

Gender and family reunification issues

Approximately 90 percent of Ukrainians who have fled the country are women and children according to UNHCR. The IOM, the UN’s migration agency, has pointed to initial reports of traffickers exploiting the large-scale human displacement, including instances of sexual violence. As signalled by both aid workers and academic experts, it is crucial to run background checks in order to avoid exploitation and sexual violence. Given the demographic profile, providing access to schooling and affordable childcare needs to be prioritised for the wellbeing of children and to enable mothers and carers to access the labour market.

Despite the recognition of the importance of the right to family life in human rights legislation, family reunification rights in Europe have become increasingly conditional and regulated. The overarching principle should be that all refugees have the right to a family life and family reunification, avoiding long bureaucratic procedures.

Refugee voice and representation

Finally, it is vitally important that the voices and experiences of refugees and people seeking asylum are heard in debates, and that their claims to dignity and humanity are included in policy-making. In UK-based research for the Migrants and Solidarities project, we have worked with people in the asylum system to foreground their voices and perspectives. They have told us of the pernicious impact of categories and labelling.

Our research suggests that we need to create more room for refugee voices in the public and political debate to challenge and nuance simplistic representations of refugees. Listening to refugees as well as people living in ‘host’ communities can facilitate space for dialogue and empathy rather than confrontation.


The current situation calls for a coordinated, holistic, and comprehensive policy approach to support the social inclusion of refugees in local communities.

The crisis in Ukraine presents an opportunity for European countries including the UK to re-affirm the principles of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol as well as the European Convention on Human Rights.

This post draws on insights and lessons from ongoing qualitative research, which examines questions of deservingness and solidarity with respect to migrants, refugees, and people seeking asylum in Denmark, Sweden, and the UK, in the context of the Nordforsk-funded Migrants and solidarities: Negotiating deservingness in welfare micropublics project. A longer version of the article has been published as part of the Ukrainian refugees and the Nordics report.

Mette Louise Berg is Professor of diaspora and migration studies at the UCL Social Research Institute and co-director of UCL’s Migration Research Unit.

Line Grüner is a PhD Student at the department of Anthropology, Aarhus University.

Anders Neergaard is Professor of sociology and director of the Linköping University Division of Research on Migration, Ethnicity and Society (REMESO).

Andrea Verdasco is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the School of Culture and Society at Aarhus University and the UCL Social Research Institute, her research project is funded by the Independent Research Fund Denmark.

Silke Zschomler is an ESRC Postdoctoral Fellow at UCL leading the project ‘From ‘language learning as the key to integration’ to ‘language learning for enriching solidarities in diversity’.


The views expressed in this post are those of the authors, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.



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