In response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine last February, the European Union has opened its borders to millions of Ukrainians fleeing the conflict. This show of humanity and compassion from the bloc toward refugees is heartening, but also exceptional in recent decades.
Will the E.U.’s reaction to the Ukraine crisis set a new precedent for its treatment of refugees from around the world? POLITICO explores the recent history of the bloc’s internal asylum debate, and the possible implications of the conflict on its eastern border.
Temporary Protection Directive activated for the first time ever
Within days of the Russian invasion, E.U. Member States unanimously agreed to activate the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), giving any Ukrainian national the right to live and work in the bloc for up to three years.
Since the TPD was first established as a legislative mechanism in 2001, there have been numerous mass movements of people fleeing conflict to the E.U. But Ukrainian refugees are the first group the TPD has ever been used for.
Despite European countries’ involvement in conflicts like those in Afghanistan and Syria, the bloc chose not to facilitate the safe relocation of people fleeing those countries.
On the contrary, efforts to prevent irregular border crossings have increased in recent decades. Indeed, in a statement on the crisis in Afghanistan last summer, E.U. interior ministers vowed to “prevent illegal migration from the region.”
While the E.U.’s swift act of humanity was applauded, it also sparked accusations of racist double standards from many, including Freedom United.
Academic and columnist Marwa El-Shinawy is quoted by POLITICO:
The Russian-Ukrainian war revealed the ugly face of Europe. It showed their racism against Arab and African immigrants despite all the human rights slogans. […] [European government] seem to believe that the protection of refugees is a right for Europeans only and that the rest of the races are not human being.
Could this be a turning point for European asylum policy?
Organizations and individuals that advocate for safe relocation mechanisms for refugees have expressed hope that the current wave of solidarity toward Ukrainians could galvanize support for fairer and more humane asylum policies in Europe. Freedom United is concerned that anti-trafficking narratives are being misused globally to justify harmful immigration policies. Instead, inhumane immigration and asylum policies are making populations on the move more vulnerable to human trafficking.
Migration policy officer at Caritas Europe, Leïla Bodeux, told POLITICO that she believes it is possible “that some people can realize that why a Syrian has made the decision to come to Europe is not so far away from why a Ukrainian has taken the same decision.” This realization could shift attitudes and consequently policy.
POLITICO reminds us of a previous moment in recent European history that stirred up enough compassion to trigger serious talks among European leaders on migration policy: the deaths of hundreds in a shipwreck off the coast of the Italian island of Lampedusa in April 2015.
The shipwreck was far from the first or the last in the Mediterranean, but it provided a political jolt to the EU, and within days, a special meeting of European leaders had pledged to get to grips with the issue by creating a “more systemic and geographically comprehensive approach to migration.”
It was the start of a push at the EU level to find a bloc-wide solution to the migration issue. It was also one of the first signs of the number of migrants who were about to come to Europe between 2015 and 2016, mainly from war-torn Syria.
In September of that year, the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called on Member States to respond with greater compassion to the people arriving to seek asylum in Europe. “We need more Europe in our asylum policy. We need more Union in our refugee policy,” he said.
But a mere two weeks later, the bloc reached a roadblock. Countries in Eastern Europe, including Hungary and Slovakia, voted against a proposal for the mandatory relocation of 120,000 refugees across Member States.
The Commission and Council presidency used the qualified majority system to approve the proposal instead of seeking unanimity. This decision opened “a wound with migration-wary countries that has not healed,” according to POLITICO.
This lack of consensus across the bloc toward migration policy continues to slow the momentum for change. POLITICO argues that Member States have preferred to view migration through their own national lenses as opposed to as a bloc-wide issue.
So, can we be hopeful?
Over seven years since the April 2015 tragedy, the bloc is still failing to achieve a unified approach to migration policy. But could that change in light of the current invasion of Ukraine?
POLITICO points out that the war has provided a new perspective to countries that have been previously reluctant to accept refugees. For example, Poland, which has traditionally pursued hostile border policies, now finds itself on the front line for arrivals from Ukraine.
In response to the massive influx of refugees, the mayor of Warsaw recently called on the E.U. to create a platform to facilitate their relocation across the bloc.
This call for solidarity and cooperation among Member States has given some hope for sustainable change. One diplomat told POLITICO:
When you see [Polish Prime Minister] Morawiecki going to Berlin to ask for solidarity on Ukraine sanctions, and then that solidarity arrives — it makes me think that’s a two-way street and that sooner or later the solidarity shown to Poland will come back.
Nevertheless, others are skeptical, and fear that the current welcoming spirit will wear off as the economic crisis sets in across the bloc.
Call for genuine anti-trafficking immigration policies
Across Europe, governments have been making people who cross borders vulnerable to exploitation by hardening their immigration policies and creating hostile environments for people without a secure visa status.
Meanwhile, governments are co-opting anti-trafficking rhetoric to justify their restrictive border policies. This is absurd because evidence shows that these policies are creating vulnerabilities to trafficking as they force people to take dangerous routes to circumnavigate border controls.
The Freedom United community feels strongly that governments around the world should dismantle migration management systems that drive trafficking, and instead pass legislation that meets human rights standards. Join us in calling for swift action.