29th Sep 2023


What happened to the non-Ukrainian refugees from Ukraine?

  • Ukrainian refugees arriving in Berlin. Yet nearly four-in-10 of the non-Ukrainian asylum seekers and refugees we interviewed had not received temporary protection (Photo: Matthias Berg)
Listen to article

Long before it became a warzone itself, Ukraine was both a transit and destination country for people fleeing conflicts and persecution elsewhere. Now, these people — who originate from Syria, Afghanistan, Russia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and elsewhere — have found themselves among the millions displaced inside the country and across borders.

New research finds that as they seek safety in the EU, these refugees struggle to access the basic protections — status, documents, information, and services — that they are entitled to.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Become an expert on Europe

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

Some 5,000 refugees and asylum seekers were registered in Ukraine in 2021. This population may seem vanishingly small in the context of millions displaced.

Yet, having worked with asylum seekers and refugees in Ukraine for more than 21 years, we know non-Ukrainians are one of the most at-risk groups in this crisis. They often lack documents or even a nationality and do not have a safe home country to return to.

Due to deficiencies in the Ukrainian asylum system, even prior to the invasion, only around 100 people were granted protection in the country each year.

In 2021, Right to Protection provided legal assistance to some 1,500 asylum seekers and refugees in Ukraine. Last year we interviewed 300 of these people who had arrived in the EU from Ukraine, to gain insight into their experiences.

The EU's Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), triggered just days after Russia's full-scale invasion, has provided legal protection to some 4.9 million people fleeing the war. Yet nearly four in 10 of the non-Ukrainian asylum seekers and refugees we interviewed had not received temporary protection.

Unless they enjoyed international protection in Ukraine, third country nationals are only eligible for temporary protection if they held permanent residency in Ukraine. This de facto excludes asylum seekers and many other vulnerable third country nationals without documents, including most of the 80,000 stateless people who had been living in Ukraine when the war began.

Refugees with documents in Ukraine are eligible for protection under the EU's TPD, but EU member states may not recognise or understand their Ukrainian documents. 38 percent of the people we interviewed faced delays and obstacles in being granted temporary protection.

Five months vs same-day

Some waited up to five months to receive temporary protection, while the EU Asylum Agency (EUAA) reports that Ukrainian nationals are issued same-day documents in at least 17 countries.

Whether they are eligible for temporary protection or not, all third country nationals arriving from Ukraine have a right to make an asylum claim.

Yet only a quarter of the respondents in our study knew where to find legal information and assistance. This makes them especially vulnerable as they try to navigate a legal labyrinth of European and national level asylum policies.

All EU member states have launched mass information campaigns on temporary protection. However, webpages in Ukrainian and Russian are of little help to Syrians and Afghans, the top two nationalities interviewed in our research.

Without proper access to information or protection procedures, more than 10 percent of the people we spoke to hold no identity or travel documents. They must remain in legal limbo, unable to return to Ukraine to see or retrieve family members, or to access basic services in the EU.

While the EU's temporary protection regime has been a lifeline for millions, it risks leaving behind these vulnerable populations. Yet, it is not too late for the EU and member states to act to protect all people fleeing Ukraine, whether they hold Ukrainian nationality or not.

EU member states should use their discretion under the TPD to extend temporary protection to asylum seekers and stateless persons.

The European Commission points out that this would be to the benefit of states, by avoiding overburdening asylum systems.

Even if political will is lacking at EU level to provide wider protection (which would require amending the Council decision implementing the TPD), the EU can act in other ways to ensure non-Ukrainians are treated fairly.

For instance, by updating the guidelines on TPD implementation, exposing good and bad practice via the Solidarity Platform, collecting data on non-Ukrainians fleeing Ukraine, and providing quality, accessible information to people who find themselves on the margins of TPD. Not only would these efforts promote harmonised practice across the EU, they would also bolster the EU's foundational commitment to non-discrimination.

Ultimately, history will judge us by the welcome we provided to the most vulnerable, including asylum seekers, refugees, and stateless persons.

Author bio

Katharine Woolrych is advocacy officer for HIAS Europe, an international Jewish organisation founded in 1881 that provides assistance to refugees. Nataliia Krynytska is human rights officer of the Ukrainian refugee group Right 2 Protection.


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

How east Europe's social services cope with Ukraine refugees

More than 50 percent of the 300,000 refugees that arrived in the Czech Republic are children, and 80 percent of all adult refugees are women. More is needed for employment for women and access to nurseries for children.


Fears on migration plus Ukraine summit This WEEK

MEPs are expected to present their migration and asylum priorities on Wednesday (1 February), before EU leaders will focus on the issue at the 9-10 February special European Council.

How do you make embarrassing EU documents 'disappear'?

The EU Commission's new magic formula for avoiding scrutiny is simple. You declare the documents in question to be "short-lived correspondence for a preliminary exchange of views" and thus exempt them from being logged in the official inventory.


Will Poles vote for the end of democracy?

International media must make clear that these are not fair, democratic elections. The flawed race should be the story at least as much as the race itself.

Latest News

  1. EU women promised new dawn under anti-violence pact
  2. Three steps EU can take to halt Azerbaijan's mafia-style bullying
  3. Punish Belarus too for aiding Putin's Ukraine war
  4. Added-value for Russia diamond ban, as G7 and EU prepare sanctions
  5. EU states to agree on asylum crisis bill, say EU officials
  6. Poland's culture of fear after three years of abortion 'ban'
  7. Time for a reset: EU regional funding needs overhauling
  8. Germany tightens police checks on Czech and Polish border

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  2. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators, industry & healthcare experts at the 24th IMDRF session, September 25-26, Berlin. Register by 20 Sept to join in person or online.
  3. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  4. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA
  5. International Medical Devices Regulators Forum (IMDRF)Join regulators & industry experts at the 24th IMDRF session- Berlin September 25-26. Register early for discounted hotel rates
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersGlobal interest in the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations – here are the speakers for the launch

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of Ministers20 June: Launch of the new Nordic Nutrition Recommendations
  2. International Sustainable Finance CentreJoin CEE Sustainable Finance Summit, 15 – 19 May 2023, high-level event for finance & business
  3. ICLEISeven actionable measures to make food procurement in Europe more sustainable
  4. World BankWorld Bank Report Highlights Role of Human Development for a Successful Green Transition in Europe
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic summit to step up the fight against food loss and waste
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersThink-tank: Strengthen co-operation around tech giants’ influence in the Nordics

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us