One month after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the European Union (EU) already faces its largest refugee crisis since World War Two, with more than ten million people having fled their homes – 6.5 million displaced within Ukraine and 3.9 million escaping to neighbouring countries.
Acting quickly and decisively, European governments have opened borders and European citizens have opened their homes in an unprecedented showing of solidarity towards refugees. But, with all eyes on Ukraine, the Greek coastguard continues to illegally push back asylum-seekers crossing from Turkey while Spanish police forcefully repel those who dare to jump the fence in Melilla.
The painful contrast exposes the double standards in the EU’s approach to refugees. With Europe’s grim history of restrictive asylum policies, it is wishful thinking that the warm welcome to Ukrainians will extend to all asylum-seekers. The EU solidarity to displaced Ukrainians illustrates the deeply politicized – and often discriminatory – nature of providing refugee protection.
However, the hope is this turning point in European history can at least set an important precedent for treating refugees more humanely. Undoubtedly, EU solidarity towards people fleeing the horrors of Putin’s war is critically important and the initial response is positive in its efforts to meet immense humanitarian needs.
Solidarity with Ukrainians
The EU activation of the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) is a significant step towards a more humane protection regime and fairer responsibility-sharing among member states. Without the need for the examination of individual applications, those fleeing Ukraine can access harmonized rights across the EU for three years – including residence, housing, medical assistance, and access to the labour market and education.
The TPD is also a move away from the strict ‘Dublin’ rules which put the pressure of hosting refugees onto the countries of ‘first arrival’. Ironically, the fiercest opponents of intra-EU solidarity, such as Poland and Hungary, are the ones benefiting from this change now but, in the case of Ukraine, geographical proximity and shared histories must be considered when analysing Europe’s response.
Eastern European and Baltic countries share a post-Soviet history and fear of Russian aggression, and Ukrainians already enjoyed 90 days of visa-free travel in the EU – with a large diaspora, many have established networks across Europe. But even considering these distinctive connections with Ukrainian displacement, the initial response still shows that European countries have both the political will and the capacity to host refugees.
Unlike the usual – often media-fuelled – narratives of refugee ‘invasions’ into Europe, the waves of women and children leaving Ukraine prompted a surge of humanitarian action but they are also a chilling reality check of Europe’s double standards.
The EU has used agreements with countries such as Turkey and Libya to prevent arrivals and outsource asylum responsibilities, while border violence, detention, and lengthy asylum procedures await the few asylum seekers who manage to enter Europe from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa.
These ‘fortress Europe’ legacies have even undercut the humanitarian response in Ukraine, with reports of incidents of discrimination towards people of colour at the EU borders being condemned by the United Nations (UN) and the African Union (AU), the media facing allegations of racist reporting, and comments from Bulgarian PM Kiril Petkov providing a stark reminder of the islamophobia, racism, and history of colonization which still pervades European asylum policies.
Foreign policy also influences how EU leaders treat the right to asylum, as the geopolitics of Europe’s efforts to create a united front against Russian aggression is an undercurrent to the prompt European response to Ukrainians. But only a few months ago, non-European asylum-seekers trapped in freezing forests at the Poland-Belarus border were used as political pawns by Belarusian leader Aliaksandr Lukashenka and then dehumanised as a ‘hybrid attack’ by EU leaders.
A turning point for asylum in Europe?
Despite entrenched discriminatory precedents, it is worth looking ahead at this moment of reckoning. Although policy changes remain far off, the unity shown over Ukraine can help reshape and refocus political efforts towards increased responsibility-sharing among EU member states – the perennial ‘hot potato’ of the EU asylum system.
Robust intra-EU solidarity could eventually encourage a turn away from questionable agreements with non-EU countries and the use of illegal border practices to keep refugees out. But the needle may move in the other direction, as EU countries could use their resources for assisting Ukrainians as a reason not to host refugees from other countries.
Even for Ukrainians, Europe’s initial solidarity will not automatically translate into long-term security especially if there is a protracted military conflict. And structural reforms are needed to address existing disparities between European asylum systems in areas such as reception conditions, access to healthcare and education, and refugees’ work and integration prospects.
Fighting disinformation and countering nationalism and xenophobia are crucial to ensure the longevity of the EU refugee response, and to start repairing the discriminatory nature of Europe’s approach to asylum. And any double standard also harms EU citizens and the rule of law, spilling over from asylum into other policy fields – so Europe must rethink how it treats all people seeking protection.
Emily Venturi, Academy Associate, Asia-Pacific Programme and Anna Iasmi Vallianatou, Academy Associate, Europe Programme.