Silence after the storm

‘Ukrainians are deserving refugees’

10 min
Text Katrien Verreyken
Image Jesse Willems 

In short

  • The refugee influx from Ukraine to our country is much bigger than any other influx Belgium has experienced before.
  • Ukrainians are the 'perfect' immigrants.
  • What does the integration paradox mean and does it apply to Ukrainians?

The war between Russia and Ukraine puts themes such as refugees and migration back into focus and, most importantly, brings them very close. Tom Naegels (language and literature alumnus) recently wrote the book Nieuw België: een migratiegeschiedenis 1944–1978 (New Belgium: a migration history 1944–1978). Lore Van Praag is director of the Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (CeMIS) at our university. According to them, Ukrainians are seen as ‘deserving refugees’, so there is a lot of willingness to host them.  


It has become a hefty magnum opus, Tom Naegels’ the book Nieuw België: een migratiegeschiedenis 1944–1978 (New Belgium: a migration history 1944–1978). It is somewhat reminiscent of Congo by David Van Reybrouck. Both gifted historical writers have ventured to synthesise a heavy page in Belgian history. In this volume, Naegels focuses on the first thirty post-war years, a manic period of hope, reconstruction and economic growth, in which Belgians became richer and better educated than ever before, with many thanks to the numerous guest workers who helped shape the new Belgium. 


Immediately after the war, these were primarily German prisoners of war who were put to work here. Polish and Hungarian war refugees were also able to enter our country. After three years, the Germans could go home and our country had to look for other labourers. We looked at Italy, which had been struggling with a labour surplus for years. For more than a decade, Italians maintained Belgium’s coal production. Belgium then made agreements with Turkey and Morocco, organising its own immigration: guest workers were picked up by buses in the country of origin. Without realising it, even today they have had an immense impact economically, demographically, culturally and politically. 

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Without realising it, even today guest workers have had an immense impact economically, demographically, culturally and politically.

Tom Naegels

Complex migration country 

Naegels gives a voice to Italians, Moroccans and Turks in his book and, above all, makes it clear that our migration history is not separate from international political history, with the Cold War, decolonisations, power struggles in the Middle East and European unification in the background. He juxtaposes the experiences of the newcomers with those of native Belgians, while being attentive to the tensions in the Flemish-nationalist movement and the rise of the far-right, as well as the difficulties in education, which was flooded with migrant children. The book does not offer any conclusions or solutions in this first part, but it does offer a multifaceted picture of Belgium as a migration country with the context and insights needed to understand the country today. Fascinating in light of the refugees from Ukraine.  


The perfect group 

‘The refugee influx from Ukraine is much bigger than any other influx Belgium has experienced before’, Naegels knows. ‘It was estimated that around 200,000 Ukrainians would come to our country. By comparison, just under 26,000 people applied for international protection in 2021. But unlike other asylum seekers, we see Ukrainians as the perfect group of refugees.’ 


‘In migration research, there is talk of so-called deserving refugees, “those who deserve hospitality” in the eyes of public opinion. The Ukrainians fit that picture completely: they did not provoke their war, they showed great bravery, it is mostly women and children who fled, they are Christian, European...’ 


‘However, we should not mistake those similarities that we see at first sight’, Lore Van Praag believes, director of the Centre for Migration and Intercultural Studies (CeMIS). ‘We know next to nothing about Ukrainian culture and history. We are also not sufficiently aware of what it means to come from a war zone.’ 


Integration paradox 

‘There is also such a thing as the integration paradox’, Naegels explains. ‘The more a refugee group integrates, the more it interacts with the indigenous population and the more likely it is to have conflict. Ukrainian women and children will automatically interact more with our population, because the children will go to school, and the mothers will be at the school gate. But for now, there is global willingness to show hospitality to Ukrainians. If that sympathy persists, it could work. Even Vlaams Belang changed its discourse when the party saw how much sympathy the Ukrainians could count on. From now on, they are the “good refugees” and the rest have to leave, to make room for them.’ 

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Distinguishing between refugees based on their region or skin colour seems problematic to me.

Lore Van Praag

‘The idea of deserving refugees is being exploited very much at the moment’, Van Praag also notes. ‘It’s unfortunate that you have to have those similarities to be labelled a “good” refugee. It seems problematic to me that a distinction is made within the group of refugees according to the region they come from or the colour of their skin.’ 


‘Indeed, you wonder why some people are allowed to travel all over the world and are welcome everywhere, while others are welcome nowhere at all’, Naegels agrees. ‘There is currently no support to relax the migration policy. The vast majority of the population would say “no” if we allowed everyone in.’ 

Unadapted education 

When it comes to integration, education is often seen as the driver of integration. Yet we still see inequalities and a lack of inclusive education. Naegels’ book on migration shows that for the first thirty years after WWII, there was never any real investment in appropriate education for the many migrant children. A cynical mind could imagine that this disadvantage was deliberate. Suppose we had supported those first migrant children from the beginning with equal educational opportunities, then they might have become doctors, architects or engineers. But these are jobs that people of Belgian descent were happy to fill themselves.  


‘Education was indeed completely left to its own devices’, Naegels says, ‘but I don’t think it was a deliberate policy to keep migrant children in the lower class. Education was just not the biggest priority for a long time. You were also faced with a very diverse influx: some children had never had any education, were often illiterate, then they were all – regardless of their age – dumped in the first year of school to learn Dutch as quickly as possible. It was not until the 1970s that expert groups were formed and resolutions written at European level, and it was not until 1976 that three pilot projects with bicultural education started in Genk.’ 


Back home 

‘As a possible explanation for why investment in these migrant children was made so late, it is often cited that they would only stay here temporarily anyway’, Van Praag says. ‘There was even education in their own language and culture in the beginning, to quickly reintegrate back into their home countries.’ 

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Most people thought that the guest workers were only here temporarily.

Tom Naegels

‘Indeed, most people thought that the guest workers were only here temporarily, but in the policy texts of the time you can see that long-term thinking was already taking place’, Naegels says. ‘That is why family reunification was introduced, to entrench them. It was also realised that integration policies were necessary, only they were limping on two legs: sometimes the emphasis was on rapid assimilation, other times on preserving cultural individuality. Bicultural education in the 1980s assumed that migrant young people would integrate better if they were also taught their own language and culture. Then the 1990s brought yet another policy shift: it was feared that having an “own language and culture” encouraged segregation, and the focus was again placed on assimilation.’ 


Once a migrant, always a migrant 

‘Our ideas on migration did change somewhat over the years’, Van Praag believes. ‘There used to be a focus on otherness as the cause of poor integration. Now we know it’s not just down to that. Attention is now also being paid to factors such as discrimination, differences in social classes, religion, etc. The fact that second- and third-generation migrants still perform less well at school can no longer be blamed solely on the fact that they do not know the language or do not know how our society works. It is also due to the fact that they are often still labelled as “migrants” and face discrimination.’ 

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Even third-generation migrants still face discrimination.

Tom Naegels

One size fits all 

 Can we do better with Ukrainian refugees this time? Van Praag believes so: ‘The advantage is that they all come at roughly the same time, with the same migration trajectory, which makes it easier to support them as one group, with the right translations and knowledge of how society works. The discourse you often hear is “Everyone always wants to come!”, but that is incorrect.’ 


‘While the redistribution of refugees across countries is a logical reflex to spread the pressure evenly, it ignores the desires of refugees not to go too far from home, to be able to return quickly if possible. What our migration history has taught us so far is that the adage of ‘one size fits all’ does not hold true. To facilitate integration, we need to look at individual situations and contexts. I find it especially fascinating to see all the things people have tried throughout history and how they still produced different results than anticipated’, Naegels concludes. ‘The outcome is always different than expected because you are intervening in a very complex society. First and foremost, I want to: understand.’ 

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