21st Feb 2024


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)
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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.

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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.

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