29th Nov 2023


EU welcome for Ukraine refugees — a new gold standard?

  • Middle East migrants trying to enter Poland from Belarus last year (Photo: Telegram)
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Amid the horrors of the war in Ukraine, Europe's response to the Ukrainian people fleeing is one of very few heartening events.

European countries and cities have been quick to set up reception centres to welcome people fleeing the war, to gather food, clothes, medicines and other goods, and to send humanitarian convoys to war-torn regions.

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Train companies and airlines are providing free tickets to Ukrainians fleeing the war. Many European families are volunteering to host Ukrainian families in their homes. Those who help are — rightly — being celebrated.

The EU managed to swiftly activate the Temporary Protection Directive, a 2001 instrument that had never been triggered before, to grant quick access to protection to Ukrainians arriving in the EU after the outbreak of the war.

All of these measures and initiatives show that Europe can be a welcoming place, and that when there's a will to help and welcome, there's always a way.

As a human rights organisation, we work for a world where everyone is treated equally and supported in hard times.

We celebrate this incredible solidarity, and we understand it is also linked to a very human sense of historical, cultural, and geographical proximity. Yet we can't be blind to the differential treatment reserved to people of colour and ethnic minorities who are trying to flee from this war or from other difficult situations elsewhere.

The difference in treatment is the most striking when one looks at who is being welcomed in Europe, and who is not, in the context of the war in Ukraine.

As millions of Ukrainians were finding refuge in Poland, Romania, Moldova, and other European countries, African and Asian students, black and brown, were not being allowed to board trains and buses and find safety outside Ukraine.

Such instances have been denounced by UN experts, including the Special Rapporteurs on racism and on the rights of migrants.

People in immigration detention centres in Ukraine (including some funded by the EU) continue to be locked up — even as the Russian army continues bombing buildings across Ukraine.

It's hard not to see the systemic racism in these very different responses. But systemic racism is not just in evidence in how Europe is responding to this war. Systemic racism is intrinsic to EU and national migration policies more broadly.

The EU member states that so quickly set up reception centres to welcome Ukrainians are the same countries that refused to welcome Afghanis, Iraqis, and others who are left stranded at EU member states' borders with Belarus in 2021.

Far from being welcomed with food, clothes and medicines, many were pushed back violently and left to wander without any help in snowy forests in winter temperatures.

At least 17 were found dead in 2021.

At Europe's southern borders, the Mediterranean route is one of the most dangerous in the world.

Media investigations have documented illegal pushbacks, including with the complicity of EU border agency Frontex, and transfers to Libyan vessels, time and time again.

Other investigations have exposed cases where the Greek coast guard took people already in the Greek islands, boarded them on their ships and then put them out to sea, leaving them to drown.

Those who help migrants from Africa and Asia are called criminals, are prosecuted in court, and are sometimes fined or sent to prison for it.

This is what a Polish family hosting people from the Middle East, Asia or Africa could face today, while other Polish citizens who are hosting Ukrainians are hailed as heroes.

The 2020-2025 EU 'action plan against racism' recognises that equality should be considered when developing migration policies, but so far EU and national legislation are not living up to this principle.

The 2020 EU 'migration pact' risks exacerbating many of the factors that make Europe's migration systems harmful and punitive, with a disproportionate impact on racialised people.

It foresees increasing detention for migrants — adults and children — speeding up returns while weakening safeguards, and not addressing the criminalisation of solidarity with migrants.

What's left out of the pact is equally important: only minimal attention is paid to expanding labour migration policies across skills levels, for instance, and addressing the gaps in our migration systems that leave people few options to come to Europe through regular means, or to live and work here in safety and dignity.

The near absence of decent work permits across sectors and skills pushes people to move in unsafe conditions, as the death of 39 Vietnamese nationals packed inside a refrigerator lorry in Essex, UK in 2019 showed.

More recent proposals are going in the direction of more, not less, harm for racialised communities.

In December 2021, the European Commission proposed a reform of the Schengen borders code, which would further increase surveillance and controls over black and brown people crossing internal borders, practically legitimising racial profiling.

How Europe is reacting to Ukrainians fleeing the war should be celebrated.

It should also be the standard for how the EU responds to all people, regardless of the colour of their skin or their country of origin, and without the unspoken hierarchy of who is worthy of fair and dignified treatment, regardless of the circumstances they're leaving behind them.

Author bio

Michele LeVoy is director of Picum, a Brussels-based NGO.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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