The former Minister of Social Affairs Lodewijk Asscher at a reception center for Ukrainian refugees in Amsterdam.Sculpture Elisa Maenhout

    ‘Even if there were to be peace today, many Ukrainian refugees will remain in the European Union for a long time. It is important that political leaders have an open and honest conversation with the population about this and explain what is at stake,’ says Lodewijk Asscher (48), in the office of the consultancy firm where he is a partner, Van de Bunt in Amsterdam .

    As a non-official citizen, the former Minister of Social Affairs and PvdA leader makes a relaxed impression. Among other things, he works on advice on the teacher shortage and the inequality of opportunity in secondary vocational education. ‘It is a kind of summary of what I have pursued in twenty years of political goals. But without the spotlight,’ he says. He was asked by the European Commission as a special adviser to help coordinate the reception and integration of Ukrainian refugees in the European Union. It is important to think about the integration of this group, he says, because the first group of refugees will stay longer than expected and the second group is already announcing.

    “Given the magnitude of the destruction in Ukraine, many people will not be able to go back anytime soon. Moreover, many refugees are mothers with young children. When the children go to primary school, they become rooted in the European Union.’

    Meanwhile, a second group is likely to arrive this winter. Minister Hoekstra of Foreign Affairs also alluded to this last week.

    That is Putin’s strategy: to bomb vital infrastructure. Heating, electricity, water, food. As a result, it quickly becomes unlivable. It’s starting to freeze now, but it gets really cold there in the winter and many buildings no longer have windows. Cold is a horrible weapon against the populace. The mayor of Kyiv has spoken openly about a scenario in which he has to evacuate the city.’

    Ukrainian refugees at the beginning of March at the station of Tsjop, near the border with Hungary.  Image Joris van Gennip / de Volkskrant

    Ukrainian refugees at the beginning of March at the station of Tsjop, near the border with Hungary.Image Joris van Gennip / de Volkskrant

    For his European mission, Asscher traveled through the ‘front-line states’ in Eastern Europe and the Baltic region, where most of the Ukrainians have been taken care of. They delivered an impressive performance, he believes, from which lessons can be learned for the integration of all refugees. In Warsaw a special employment office for Ukrainians was set up, in Bratislava Ukrainians were involved in the reception of their own group, as interpreters, lawyers or security guards. Women have been employed in occupations that were previously seen as ‘masculine’, such as forklift driver or shipyard worker.

    ‘There are many examples of innovative ways of dealing with integration. How do you look at the skills of migrants, how do you link them to employers, how can you use networks? The contrast is stark with the treatment of other refugees who often have to wait a long time while their faculties rust. That’s one of the lessons we learn: if you let people participate, integration goes better.’

    As Minister of Social Affairs, you sent an urgent letter to the EU to warn against the import of cheap labor from Eastern Europe. Isn’t that problem getting worse because of the refugees from Ukraine?

    ‘I still find the competition on labor costs a problem. This is at the expense of the migrants themselves and the local population. On the other hand, there are shortages in the labor market in large parts of the EU. That is why you have to take a good look at what refugees can do. They should not be cheaper, which leads to crowding out. In labor migration, the economic motive of employers mainly plays a role, here it concerns our neighbors who are being bombed.’

    As PvdA leader you visited Denmark to be informed about the strict Danish immigration policy. Can great hospitality for Ukrainians be combined with the call to curb immigration?

    ‘I want to stay completely out of the current political debate, but I think refugees deserve security. There are also a few things to say about the difference between Ukrainians and other groups. There is always a plea for reception in the region, and now we are the region. I think there can be no misunderstanding among the Ukrainians that they are fleeing war and violence. It is sometimes more difficult to determine who is a refugee in other groups. And with the Ukrainians there is a cultural closeness. That makes no difference to me for the question of who deserves protection. But it does matter for the question of what countries can and want to do.’

    In his speeches as a special adviser to the European Commission, Asscher refers to his own Jewish family history. His grandmother told how she stood in the snow for hours in the morning in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, his father survived the war because a non-Jewish couple made the Germans believe that he was their own son. ‘Family history teaches me that such a conflict for the children it affects continues for a long time, even when the arms are silent. And, secondly, that it entails a responsibility: what is your own role, where do you stand? Quasi-neutrality, the attitude of: I’ll just keep zapping, I don’t think it’s possible.’

    This winter it will come down to it in Europe.
    “A very large wave of refugees could come our way. At the same time, a certain fatigue has set in in the recipient countries and Europeans are feeling the effects of a purchasing power crisis, which has also been fueled by Putin. This calls for solidarity, towards the Ukrainians, but also towards the weakest members of the host society. For Europe it is a test. What does Europe stand for? The conflict is not only about geopolitics, but also about values, about democracy and the choices the continent wants to make. I find it very exciting whether Europe will pass that test.’