28th Feb 2024


Where do Ukrainian refugees in EU go after 2025?

  • The temporary three-year protection put in place by the EU-27 places the Ukrainian refugees in an uncertain position — because this protection can be revoked (Photo: European Commission)
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Due to the ongoing Ukrainian-Russian war, millions of Ukrainian refugees have fled to EU countries, where they were met with generous and unprecedented support.

Ukrainian refugees have encountered numerous challenges. As with anyone who flees from a war, it can be psychologically distressing to leave behind loved ones, community ties, and homes on short notice, not knowing what the future holds. In the host countries, refugees face housing issues, rising inflation, difficulty in securing decent jobs, a higher risk of exploitation, and language barriers, which are some of the critical predicaments they encounter.

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Nevertheless, Ukrainian refugees have demonstrated resilience. They have integrated into the host countries by securing service industry jobs and housing. After two years, refugee children are enrolled in schools and have made friends. Their flexibility and integration amid challenges are admirable.

But they face an uncertain future. They have two options: resettlement in the host country or repatriation to Ukraine.

Policymakers and authorities anticipate that the refugees will mostly choose the latter option once the war ends. Many have speculated that the European Union may be considering something similar to the Marshall Plan to rebuild Ukraine. Such a plan would create a strong demand for labour while providing a means to accommodate refugees. This economic and developmental argument holds pragmatic appeal.

But what will happen to Ukrainian refugees if they want to stay permanently in the EU countries in which they have been given refuge? Are they free to choose? Here, we need to examine EU immigration policies. Are the EU policies able to meet ethical and moral obligations towards refugee populations?

The EU temporarily protected Ukrainian refugees for up to three years in all 27 member countries, permitting them to stay and work. Recently, the EU generously extended Ukrainian refugees' temporary protection to 2025. However, this temporary protection places the Ukrainian refugees in an uncertain position because this protection can be revoked; this means that refugees will have no other option than to repatriate involuntarily, regardless of what they choose.

In other words, the refugees, who have successfully integrated into the host country and sadly have lost their loved ones and homes in the war, cannot decide their future. Their freedom of choice has been negated by a shift in policy from voluntary repatriation to involuntary repatriation.

Tanzania, Syria, Afghanistan case-studies

Before the 1990s, refugees had freedom of choice vis-a-vis voluntarily repatriating or permanently remaining in the host country. However, involuntary repatriation became a policy in the late 1990s. This shift initially began in the Global South, wherein democratic structures were ineffective. For example, the Tanzanian government deployed military force to repatriate 500,000 Hutu refugees, justifying their action based on militant activities in camps.

Despite this involuntary repatriation policy, the assistant high commissioner for protection with the UNHCR, Volker Turk, visited Tanzania in 2018 and advised the government officials to ensure a meaningful choice for refugees concerning staying or repatriating.

Here, we come to the heart of the matter. Freedom of choice is a cornerstone of the liberal order. Yet refugee's choices are restricted.

For example, the EU countries revoked Syrian and Afghan refugees' permits because the authorities declared their countries safe. An Amnesty International report in 2021, however, suggests that returnees could face torture, enforced disappearances, and arbitrary or unlawful detention. Similarly, the Danish government wants to repatriate 30,000 Syrian refugees to their country of origin.

Analogously, the involuntary repatriation policy can put the Ukrainian refugees in a precarious situation. They may be forced to repatriate without honouring their decision. Stifling their freedom of choice will decimate their human dignity. They became refugees not through choice but by necessity to seek refuge.

From an economic and developmental standpoint, Ukraine may need its citizens to return home and invest in rebuilding the country. However, it would be wrong for the EU countries to force Ukrainian refugee populations to return involuntarily.

The liberal order is built upon individual liberties. These are fundamental to a democratic society. As citizens of liberal Western countries, we must stand up for refugees and ensure they have the freedom to choose where they want to live while they are in our communities.

Refugees have already experienced grave assaults on their human dignity. The liberal nations of the EU must not add to their misery.

Author bio

Sheraz Akhtar and professor Patrick Keeney are both lecturers at Chiang Mai university in Thailand.


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

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