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When war hit Ukraine. Reflections on what it might mean for refugee, asylum and migration policies in Europe

On 24th February, Russia began a full-scale military offensive in Ukraine. During the first 14 days of the war, over 2 million Ukrainians fled the country, seeking safety and protection. The majority fled to Poland (58%), with Hungary, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova as other major countries of first arrival. The European Union and UNHCR are expecting and preparing for up to 4 to 5 million refugees. Though the exact scale is unknown, at least a million people have been displaced within the country, in addition to the almost 1 million IDPs who had already been displaced in Eastern Ukraine.

Beyond the initial and widely-covered emergency response, what are the potential broader consequences of the war in Ukraine for migration and asylum in the years to come? This article considers issues of legal status, non-Ukrainian refugees (including Russians), the differences compared to previous refugee response in Europe, onward movement, shifting power dynamics and response to future refugee and migrant arrivals, forgotten crises, ‘root causes’, the focus on numbers and IDPs.

Legal categories do not always capture reality on the ground

The current situation once again makes clear that technical and legal status categories – refugees, asylum seekers, economic migrants, labour migrants – do not always capture the reality on the ground. Ukrainians are fleeing sudden and violent armed conflict and are looking for safety, therefore they qualify for international protection under the refugee convention. However, for the first time, a country bordering the EU with a visa-free status for entry to the EU is at war. Ukrainians can enter the EU without a visa and stay for up to 90 days, and for years, Ukraine has been the among the major countries of origin for economic migrants in the EU, with 1.5 million legally resident in Poland and large diasporas in Germany, Czech Republic, Hungary, Spain and Italy. Many of those fleeing will rely on family and diaspora to settle in or seek direct employment opportunities, and will do so without claiming asylum.

Then on 3rd March the EU agreed to activate a never-before-used directive to grant temporary protection to people fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, which means that those fleeing the war will be given a residence permit, and will have access to education and the labour market. With serious labour market shortages in many sectors in European countries, both in the East and the West, businesses are already mobilising to employ Ukrainians and it is likely many will relatively quickly integrate into European labour markets. As such, many will not apply for asylum or spend their time in refugee camps, but will move out across Europe, reconnect with family and friends and likely access jobs and education.

Yet, does that make them economic or labour migrants? Clearly not; they are refugees fleeing a violent war. Without other migratory channels at their disposal, most would have applied for asylum and would have been granted asylum. This goes to show that the legal labels we apply are sometimes more related to the options that exist, rather than a reflection of the individual’s situation or status.

What about non-Ukrainians fleeing the war?

As in every war or crisis, non-citizens are also caught up and forced to flee. While not refugees in the strict interpretation of the Refugee Convention (as it is not their own country they are fleeing), these people should have the same rights to find safety across borders when fleeing a war. The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimated that there are more than 470,000 foreign nationals in Ukraine. Around 76,000 of them were international students, many of them from Africa, Asia and the Middle East.

There have been disturbing cases of discrimination against foreigners leaving Ukraine, with especially black Africans being prevented from fleeing. This has rightly caused international outcry, including by migrants’ countries of origin, the United Nations, the African Union and Human Rights Watch. Useful guidelines exist for how to protect and where possible repatriate migrants caught up in crisis, namely the government-led Migration in Countries in Crisis (MICIC) initiative, but there has been surprisingly little reference to it.

The EU made an excellent decision in extending the Temporary Protection Directive to non-Ukrainian nationals and stateless people legally residing in Ukraine who cannot return to their country or region of origin, such as asylum seekers or beneficiaries of international protection and their family members. Others who are legally present in Ukraine for a short-term and are able to return safely to their country of origin will fall outside the scope of this protection. Nevertheless, the EU stressed that they should be allowed access to the EU to transit prior to returning to their countries of origin. While not sending back people who face dangers in their country of origin is already an international obligation under the principle of non-refoulement, the formal inclusion of non-Ukrainians in the temporary protection scheme is important as it will simplify entry procedures and ease access to rights and services.

As such, the legal guidelines for non-nationals fleeing Ukraine to the EU are now clear. All should be granted access to the EU; those in need of international protection are granted it, those able to return home should be assisted by their embassies and consulates or, if unavailable, through international assistance to safely return. It will be crucial to closely monitor adherence, to ensure all citizens, whether Ukrainian or foreign, are able to escape the war.

What about Russian refugees?

While understandably the focus is on refugees from Ukraine, growing numbers of Russians are leaving their country. The rouble and economy have crashed; Russia is cracking down on opponents of the war, with over 7,500 people detained at anti-war protests; and there are rumours martial law will be declared, with borders closed and mass mobilisation of the male population. With many countries closing their airspace, the limited available flights out of Russia are fully booked and so are trains to Finland. With further sanctions, and Russia continuing to spend billions every day on the war in Ukraine, life will become difficult for millions of Russians and those openly opposed to the war face persecution.

It is likely that Europe, and in particular the bordering countries such as Finland and the Baltic states will need to prepare for the arrival of Russian refugees. This will be a crucial test for Europe. On the one hand, with the Russian state being the aggressor in the war in Ukraine, it is likely that Russian refugees will evoke less empathy among populations than Ukrainians. On the other hand, many Russians are just as opposed to the war and will face individual persecution by the state, a reason to grant refugee status. And welcoming large numbers of Russian refugees would also send a clear signal to Moscow, which might increase the EUs willingness to keep its doors open to those fleeing Putin’s regime.

Different refugees, different response

A lot has been said about the striking difference in response by Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary, as well as the EU as a whole, towards the arrival of millions of Ukrainians compared with the response in 2015/16 to the arrival of over a million refugees from the Middle East. Or, perhaps even more striking, only a few months ago, Poland’s imposition of a state of emergency, creating a no-go area along the border with Belarus, building a wall and reportedly pushing back refugees and migrants in response to the attempts of several thousand refugees and migrants from Asia and the Middle East to access the EU in a deliberate scheme by Belarussian President Lukashenko. There has been justified indignation about some of the (white) Western media commentary that it is unthinkable that such a war is occurring in Europe, and that people who ‘look like us’ are being forced to flee as opposed to conflict and refugee movements in Asia, or Africa, or the Middle East.

Many observers have pointed to racism to explain the stark contrast with previous responses to the arrival of refugees. There is a painful truth there, which should be acknowledged and addressed. While acknowledging the racism, experts also pointed to identification as an explanation. If war happens in a neighbouring country which shares many cultural, linguistic and family ties, people – and by extension states –respond differently to the arrival of refugees from that country. People identify more with those nearby and can more easily envision themselves in the same situation, being forced to flee their homes if it happens so close-by, as opposed to when they see people fleeing places far away, where they have never visited. Elsewhere, this is also illustrated by the generous hosting of millions of refugees from Syria in Lebanon and Jordan, Rohingya in Bangladesh or Somalis in Kenya and Ethiopia.

Notwithstanding and to focus on the positive, the EU, in activating the TPD for Ukrainians and third-country nationals in Ukraine is doing the right thing. The response, and unity in response, across Eastern Europe, by the people and by governments and the mass mobilisation of support for Ukrainian refugees has been heart-warming and impressive. While this is perhaps a somewhat naïve hope, Europe experiencing that war and forced displacement can still happen to all of us, may increase the empathy to all those affected by war and conflict and change the future response to refugees and migrants from outside of Europe.

Reception in the region and onward movement

For years, the EU and many individual member states have taken a strong ‘reception in the region’ position, arguing refugees should be primarily hosted by neighbouring safe countries and discouraging and preventing onward movement. Ministers across Europe who are responsible for migration and asylum have now been consistent in this policy and made it explicit that in this crisis Europe is the region and as such they will accept and host Ukrainian refugees. However, one question will still be how far into Western Europe the concept of ‘region’ applies. Do all countries in Europe apply this concept in the same way? For example, the United Kingdom government has faced criticism that its scheme is not as generous as the EU’s TPD. For now, the large majority of Ukrainian refugees are in Poland and other nearby countries, but with visa-free travel, the TPD and a Ukrainian diaspora present across Europe, it is likely that many will move onward elsewhere within Europe. How countries in Europe that are further will respond when potentially tens or hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian refugees arrive, will be an important test for solidarity and unity across Europe.

Global solidarity, burden-sharing and the future of refugee and migration policy in Europe

The current situation has the potential to significantly alter future global discussions on refugee, asylum and migration policy, and it is likely to change the power dynamics between Eastern and Western EU states.

For global discussions on refugee hosting and burden sharing, Europe now has its own refugee crisis, with refugees originating from Europe and in Europe. Depending on how the war in Ukraine develops, it is likely that Europe will soon host millions of Ukrainian refugees. At the same time, the EU and individual member states are among the major donors for refugee hosting across the world. Future discussions on funding may see a decreased willingness from Europe to host any other refugees from other regions in the world, including through official resettlement. Crises persist beyond Ukraine, and so will forced displacement, and Europe’s new reality could have serious consequences for many refugees around the world.

Furthermore, the dynamics within Europe will change. In recent years, eastern European states have been among the most unwilling in terms of refugee hosting and often blocked proposals for relocation of refugees and migrants from Europe’s southern states (Italy, Greece and Spain). However, these same countries are now showing an immense willingness to host millions of refugees from Ukraine. This will put them in a completely different position in any future discussions, where they could argue that, as southern countries are doing for movements across the Mediterranean and from Asia and Middle East, they are doing more than their fair share in terms of refugee hosting, and it should be north-western Europe doing much more. It is difficult to say at this stage how this will play out, but it is clear that the stakes have shifted in any future discussions on the reform of Europe’s migration and asylum policies.

What about the other crises in the world?  

Understandably, at the moment all attention is on Ukraine. Even the Covid-19 pandemic can seem far away. Media attention is almost exclusively directed to Ukraine, and it is likely donor attention and funding will also be re-directed to the situation in Europe. Countries across Europe are announcing major investments in their military, which could come at the expense of funding for humanitarian response, development, or to address the climate crisis.

Even though the crisis in Ukraine requires massive attention, diplomatic efforts and humanitarian funding, we have to make sure not to forget about others: Afghanistan was a major focus  not long ago after the Taliban take-over in August 2021; there is a devastating drought in the Horn of Africa (possibly even exacerbated directly by soaring wheat prices, as Ukraine is Europe’s biggest wheat exporter); ongoing armed conflict in Yemen, South Sudan, Myanmar; the crisis in the Sahel or the Central African Republic. A fall in the focus on and funding for any of these crises, is likely to contribute to further instability and even more forced displacement originating from these areas.

Root causes?

In recent years, there has been a strong focus on and narrative in EU and US policies on the so-called root causes of migration and displacement. As argued in an earlier Op-Ed, in addition to other issues, one problem with this focus is a certain dishonesty given that many of the real root causes are in fact conveniently forgotten or ignored. Arguably, the dependency of Western countries on oil and gas and the massive income this provides to exporting states, gives Western countries less manoeuvring space and is used by exporting states to finance conflict and war (for example in the case of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, and now with Russia in Ukraine), causing forced displacement. There is now is a strong push in the US, UK and the EU to reduce the dependency on Russian oil and gas. Perhaps this will create the momentum to more broadly and rapidly reduce the dependency on fossil fuels from all states involved in conflict and human rights violations, as such addressing a major root cause of displacement and speeding up investments in renewable energy sources, with a positive effect on the environment too.

Unprecedented numbers, numbers, numbers

There is a strong tendency among media, commentators and international institutions to focus on numbers and add classifications such as ‘unprecedented’ and ‘largest-ever’, as part of an increasingly common response to crises. In the case of Ukrainian refugees, it is constantly stressed that this might become the biggest refugee situation since the Second World War, that it is the biggest refugee crisis in Europe this century, and that it is the fastest-growing refugee emergency this century. Certainly, the current crisis is massive and has the potential to become much worse. However, while such claims are quite often not even accurate, or at least difficult to verify, more important, is whether such hyperbole is needed? These claims are usually made with good intentions, to draw attention to the severity of the crisis, but in this case it is unlikely that anyone underestimates the severity of the crisis. Indeed it may prove counter-productive, as people feel helpless in the face of a crisis on such scale.

How much do these numbers of displaced help us to understand the severity of the crisis? Contexts make a big difference. To take just one aspect, Ukraine’s citizens have visa-free travel to the EU and relatively good infrastructure for travel, so it can be expected that the speed of the outflux exceeds other situations, where people can only move on foot.

Finally, as always, the constant focus on the massive number of refugees who fled to neighbouring countries, risks forgetting about all the others who are still inside Ukraine, the internally displaced and those who are trapped, unable to even move away from danger, who are usually the most vulnerable in any conflict.