4th Dec 2023

Solidarity with Ukraine refugees, but there may be limits

  • Some 50,000 Ukrainians have left the country, mostly to Poland and to Moldova [pictured above] (Photo: Moldova government)
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The European Union was in a state of suspended anticipation on Friday, facing what could be the biggest inflow of refugees in its history as a result of fighting in Ukraine — but still reluctant to go into its highest response mode ahead of large-scale arrivals.

A looming question is whether the EU will be able to accommodate what could potentially be millions of frightened and hungry people, or whether, if they arrive, they will be stuck on the EU borderlands in a replay of previous migration emergencies in Europe.

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Another question is how long EU states would then be willing to host Ukrainian refugees from the fighting — and whether they will be accorded better treatment than many other refugees arriving from non-European parts of the world like the Middle East and Africa.

Some 24 hours after the outbreak of large-scale hostilities in Ukraine, EU states were keeping borders open up to refugees after Russian forces advanced through the country from at least three directions, displacing some 100,000 people in just a matter of hours, according to figures issued Thursday by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR).

UN aid agencies on Friday told Reuters news agency that up to five million people could flee Ukraine and seek refuge in neighbouring EU states like Poland and Germany.

Germany, prior to the outbreak of a full-scale war, predicted between 200,000 to one million refugees from Ukraine.

Already some 50,000 have fled Ukraine with most heading towards Poland and Moldova, Filippo Grandi, the UN high commissioner for refugees, said Friday.

Amid the fighting, Poland had set up reception centres near its border and — in a sign Poland was facilitating arrivals — it had amended its laws to remove Covid entry-restrictions for Ukrainians.

But it appears that some Ukrainians also are heading in the opposite direction. Polish media was reporting on Thursday that Ukrainians already living in Poland were leaving for Ukraine to help fight in the war.

Hungary was also making overtures ahead of arrivals of refugees, by introducing temporary protection status for Ukrainians entering the country.

Temporary Protection Directive

If there was foot-dragging, it seemed to be coming from the European Commission in Brussels.

Though involved in helping plan for mass arrivals, the commission would not say on Friday if it was preparing to invoke an EU law on protecting refugees known as the Temporary Protection Directive.

In fact, that law has never been invoked before. The process is cumbersome as the European Commission needs to put forward a proposal and get at least 15 out of 27 EU states to agree to it.

Hanne Beirens, director of Migration Policy Institute Europe (MPI-Europe) in Brussels, says it's supposed to be used in emergencies but is procedurally lengthy to execute.

Set up in the aftermath of the Yugoslav war, the EU refugee-protection law is supposed to be used in the event of a "mass influx or imminent mass influx" of people coming into an EU state.

It is a form of temporary protection designed to offer immediate help by granting large groups of people a kind of collective asylum status. It means people would have a protection status for up to a year, skipping individual asylum claims altogether, and allowing them all access to housing and other benefits like clothing and education.

Ukraine nationals have a 90-day visa free status in the EU. But after 90-days they will need some sort of protection to remain — and this is where the EU's refugee law would factor in.

"The danger is that these people will be forced to apply for asylum at some point because the visa regime only allows for 90 days," said Beirens.

On Friday, a commission spokesperson said the EU was already an area of protection for people fleeing persecution — a point some critics may contest given the widespread reports of pushbacks and abuse of migrants and asylum seekers from primarily African and Middle Eastern countries.

Indeed, rather than widening access to Europe, the overall push by the EU is to weaken asylum rights of people trying to cross into Poland, Latvia and Lithuania from Belarus.

Only earlier this week, a young man from Yemen was found dead in a swamp inside the Polish border with Belarus amid widespread reports of violent pushbacks by Polish border guards.

Earlier this week, UN high commissioner for refugees Grandi said his organisation had registered almost 540 reported incidents of pushbacks by Greece since the beginning of 2020. "What is happening at European borders is legally and morally unacceptable and must stop," he said, in a statement.

But the outpouring of support for Ukraine is in sharp contrast to the mix of nationalities caught up along Europe's external borders in the east and the south.

Even so, there are concerns that European solidarity with Ukrainians may become a point of contention, should the conflict stretch on for months or longer.

"Regardless of their status, if hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians flee to neighbouring countries amid prolonged conflict, the question of solidarity within the EU bloc will rise to the forefront," MPI-Europe wrote in an article published by her organisation on Friday.

Zuzana Števulová of Bratislava-based Human Rights League raised similar concerns in an interview last week.

"We should not rely on the fact that this time we would be dealing with arrival of non-Muslim, culturally close Ukrainians and therefore everything will be OK," she said.

"Such [a] belief might be very wrong," she said.


How EU can prepare for a Ukrainian refugee crisis

The Russian invasion may lead to the largest movement of individuals in Europe since the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis. Introducing these Ukrainians into the workforce could help revamp EU economies.

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