1. Home
  2. Europe

What the EU’s policy toward Ukrainians may mean for other refugees

‘This is what is really going to determine Europe’s refugee protection legacy – whether its solidarity ends with Ukraine.’

The EU is welcoming millions of Ukrainians, but has adopted policies making it difficult for people from elsewhere to seek safety and opportunity in Europe, such as these sheltering in Majdan, Serbia in 2020, near the EU borders. Marko Djurica/REUTERS
The EU is welcoming millions of Ukrainians, but has adopted policies making it difficult for people from elsewhere to seek safety and opportunity in Europe, such as these sheltering in Majdan, Serbia in 2020, near the EU borders.

The warm welcome extended to Ukrainian refugees by the European Union and its member states represents a nearly 180-degree turn from the bloc’s restrictive migration and asylum policies of recent years. But there are pressing questions about whether the positive response can be maintained, and if it will be extended to people from other parts of the world seeking protection and opportunity in the EU. 

More than five million Ukrainians have managed to flee the country since the Russian invasion began two months ago. The vast majority – some 4.3 million – have sought refuge in EU member states, where they have so far been greeted with open arms and ample support. In comparison, around 2.3 million refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants from the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa who have crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since 2014 have faced an ever-hardening series of migration and asylum policies. 

“Overall, the EU’s response to displacement from Ukraine has been positive… It is a sad situation that we haven’t seen a similar response to arrivals of displaced people from other countries and other regions in recent years,” Catherine Woollard, director of the European Council on Refugees and Exiles (ECRE), a network of NGOs advocating for refugee and asylum seeker rights, told The New Humanitarian. 

“[Instead] we’ve seen a huge amount of resources, political attention, and legislative reform that is all geared at trying to minimise the number of people who arrive in Europe to seek protection,” Woollard added.

Migration experts like Woollard say that it is still too early to tell how the EU’s response to displacement from Ukraine will impact its treatment of other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants, but that it is important to try to harness the current level of support to push for a fairer and more humane system and policies overall. There is also concern among experts that, as the displacement crisis from Ukraine continues, the current warm welcome will eventually wear thin. 

“The real test – and the really interesting question – is what is going to come next,” Olivia Sundberg Diez, a policy and advocacy advisor for the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a refugee advocacy organisation, told The New Humanitarian. 

“This is what is really going to determine Europe’s refugee protection legacy – whether its solidarity ends with Ukraine or whether the lessons from this response, going forward, also apply to other emergencies and other displacement situations,” said Sundberg Diez. 

Here’s a look at some of the key questions surrounding the EU’s response to Ukrainian refugees and how it could affect the bloc’s treatment of other people seeking protection. 

How has the EU’s response to Ukrainians differed from its treatment of other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants?

In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion, the EU activated the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD) – a never-before-used policy mechanism that gives Ukrainian refugees access to social services and paves the way for them to live, work, and study in EU countries of their choosing for up to three years without having to apply for asylum. 

“What we’re seeing now is that [the TPD] is an eminently humane and practical measure”, Sundberg Diez said. “It’s necessary to prevent people from being in limbo, spending months in unfit reception centres, and waiting for their applications to be assessed for years. It gives them access to integration, to services from day one, and it gives them clarity about how long they can stay.” 

But the use of the TPD came as a surprise to many observers of EU migration policy because the bloc had steadfastly refused to activate the measure in the past to help manage increased arrivals, such as in 2015 when 1.3 million people – most of them fleeing Syria’s civil war – reached the continent. 

Instead, EU migration and asylum policy has been growing more restrictive as an increasing number of countries and political parties have turned their backs on the right of people fleeing persecution and war to seek protection. 

Since 2015, EU institutions and member states have ignored human rights concerns while providing incentives and support to countries such as TurkeyLibya, and Niger to prevent asylum seekers and migrants from reaching Europe; allowed people who do arrive to languish in squalid camps in Greece; and grown increasingly indifferent to human rights violations and pushbacks carried out by security forces at the bloc’s external borders.

“It is really clear that the political will to continue to maintain the protection system in Europe as we know it today is… wearing thin,” Hanne Beirens, director of the Migration Policy Institute (MPI) think tank in Europe, told The New Humanitarian. 

How might the EU response to Ukrainian refugees impact other people seeking protection in Europe? 

One of the main reasons why the EU’s response to Ukrainians has differed so significantly from its treatment of other refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants is because EU policymakers are not viewing the situation primarily as a refugee crisis, according to Beirens.  

“This is very much perceived by EU policymakers and national policymakers as a geopolitical conflict in which the EU is positioning itself towards what is happening in Ukraine, but also towards Russia… So the solidarity that is shown with the refugees, and the willingness to host refugees, is very much seen as one of the ways in which the EU is positioning itself,” Beirens said.

There are no indications yet that EU policy towards asylum seekers and migrants from other parts of the world might be shifting.

Meanwhile, there are no indications yet that EU policy towards asylum seekers and migrants from other parts of the world might be shifting, according to Marie De Somer, head of the European Policy Centre (EPC) think tank’s migration and diversity programme. “We see the same deterrent policies… continuing,” she said.

In fact, the focus on Ukrainian refugees may be coming at the expense of refugees and asylum seekers from other parts of the world. A number of EU countries have paused their refugee resettlement programmes because resources are being dedicated to Ukrainians, and some asylum seekers who are already in the EU will likely have to wait longer to access services and be allocated spaces in reception centres, social housing, and language and cultural orientation classes, according to Beirens.  

“There is already sort of an image that is emerging of a two-tiered system,” Beirens said. “It results in a lot of frustration, very negative reactions to those who are working on the ground in terms of how do you explain that [one] population is now treated very differently from the people who have been there for months or maybe even years.”

There is also a risk that some politicians could use the fact that the EU is now hosting a large number of Ukrainians to justify doubling down on harsh migration policies towards asylum seekers and migrants from other parts of the world, according to Woollard. 

“There is already sort of an image that is emerging of a two-tiered system.”

On the other hand, EU countries are investing a substantial amount of money in their reception and integration systems to provide for Ukrainians. “I do think that we will see potential benefits being multiplied or picked up by future refugee populations,” Beirens said.

Also, now that the TPD has been activated, EU leaders are seeing how effective it is and that it should potentially be used more often, according to Sundberg Diez. 

The question is whether European politicians will be willing to use it in situations involving refugees and asylum seekers coming from outside of Europe. “We do know that asylum and migration policies demonstrate bias and prejudice,” Woollard said. “Factors such as race and religion are a part of what determines the response of European countries, as it does for other countries in other regions.”

“What we see with this response [to displacement from Ukraine] is that when Europe decides to manage, it can manage. And we would hope to see that replicated in response to other crises from now on,” she added.

What are the longer-term challenges of responding to Ukrainians displaced by war? 

Despite the positive initial response, “the speed and volume with which people are arriving from Ukraine… means that no country, no local government is prepared to deal with it, and it will be a very rough ride, no matter how many preparations are being made,” Beirens said.

There is also no guarantee that widespread public support for hosting Ukrainian refugees will continue. “Even solidarity, we know, has a particular lifecycle,” she added. “We’ve seen it in all other crises: Even with the best will in the world, at some point people get exhausted.”

Right now, civil society groups and volunteers are covering many of the needs that Ukrainian refugees have – providing everything from housing and food to transportation. “Over time, it’s very difficult to rely entirely on this response,” Sundberg Diez said. “Eventually, volunteers have to go back to work, emergency shelters need to be used for their original purpose, civil society providing food or basic needs, that’s naturally going to trickle down.”

As a result, governments need to mobilise resources now to make sure services are in place when the volunteer response starts to wane and to head off frustrations that will inevitably surface about rising housing prices and pressures placed on social services, schools, and the labour market. It is also important that the arrival and reception of Ukrainians continues to be as organised and orderly as possible to prevent the situation from appearing chaotic, which could start to sour public opinion, according to experts. 

“What we really need to see now is for states to make those investments, but also make them in a permanent and sustainable way beyond this emergency to help Europe live up to its goals and also its capacity in terms of refugee protection and humanitarian leadership,” Sundberg Diez said.

“We also can’t forget other emergencies. This can’t come at the expense of having a functioning asylum system for other asylum seekers, resettlement commitments being upheld, humanitarian aid for other regions – all of those priorities remain really pressing,” she added. “The next few months will be crucial.”

Edited by Josephine Schmidt.

Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.