Wednesday

1st Feb 2023

Ukrainians arriving in EU could get extended right to stay

  • More than 70.000 Ukrainian citizens entered Moldova [pictured above] over the past four days (Photo: Moldova government)
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An EU law that's never been used may soon be activated to give long-term refuge to an estimated 4 million Ukrainians who could leave the country amid the war with Russia.

The announcement, on Sunday (27 February), came amid a welter of signals that fighting soon could escalate to far more serious levels as the EU and Germany dropped taboos against sending weapons, and Belarus took an even more aggressive posture.

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The fighting has so far pushed close to 400,000 people into neighbouring EU states as well as Moldova, and they have all opened their borders to the arrivals — at this stage mostly women and children.

"We are witnessing what could become the largest humanitarian crisis on our European continent in many, many years," the EU crisis commissioner Janez Lenarčič told reporters on Sunday.

Lenarčič said another 7 million people could become internally displaced as a result of the conflict. Around 2 million people were displaced following Russia's previous incursions into Ukraine in 2014.

There are concerns that not everyone who wants to leave Ukraine can do so easily, and some "are facing difficulties" at EU borders, warned Amnesty International.

Amnesty did not identify the people concerned, but there are thought to be thousands of African students studying in Ukraine.

Under current EU visa rules, the fleeing Ukrainians are allowed to remain within the EU for just 90 days.

"We need to be prepared for day 91," EU home affairs commissioner Ylva Johansson told a news conference following a meeting of EU interior ministers.

Johansson proposed to address the prospect of much longer stays by using a so-called Temporary Protection Directive, an EU law set up in the aftermath of the Yugoslav war.

The idea is to offer Ukrainians a legal status to remain on EU territory for up to one year, or possibly longer, without having to go through a laborious individual asylum process that could jam national systems.

The status could for instance allow for temporary residency permits and worker rights.

It is likely the large Ukrainian diaspora in the EU would help house the refugees — and that could facilitate member states' willingness to support the activation of the EU law.

Poland's Ukrainian diaspora, for instance, alone already hovers around 2 million.

Solidarity and relocation

Yet, even amid the horrors unfolding in Ukraine, there still was caution on Sunday among some member states.

Some may not want the protection law to become a precedent for providing longer term aid to asylum seekers who arrive onto the shores of Italy and Greece from parts of the world beyond Europe, like the Middle East and Africa.

EU-mandated solidarity seeking to make member states help one another host asylum seekers, or share the costs of doing so, have sowed deep divisions in Europe in recent years.

"This isn't a magic wand," Swedish migration minister Anders Ygeman said Sunday, making the point that invoking the law would not necessarily put obligations on all member states. "It's still voluntary with all the country pledges," he said.

Denmark's migration minister Mattias Tesfaye was among those taking a cautious approach, telling reporters that it is too soon to activate the legislation.

Once the commission's proposal is tabled, at least 15 EU states out of 27 will be needed to activate the extended-stay measure.

Gerald Darmanin, the French interior minister whose country currently chairs EU ministerial meetings, said most other home affairs ministers were already onboard.

"I saw great support," he said, with only some reservations "on how this is going to be done."

Fleeing students like those from Africa who crossed to the EU could either be returned to their home countries or apply for asylum, said Johansson, the EU commissioner.

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